How to be There for a Friend Who Experiences Panic Attacks

Anxiety is one of the most common feelings students experience. It is easy to get nervous, scared, and worked up about school work or even just everyday problems. Though some of us may deal with anxiety infrequently, it is important to remember that for others, anxiety is a very real part of everyday life. Some days may be better than others, but for sufferers of daily anxiety it can be a constant nagging in the back of their heads.

Over the years, I have found minor ways that have helped lessen temporary symptoms caused by my own anxiety. I found chewing gum or a mint gave me something to focus on when I felt a panic attack coming on. Walking to a nearby park for some quiet time to deal with my emotions has also helped. While these things were great for me at one point in time, they were still, as I mentioned, temporary. I had finally reached a point where I needed to find something that offered me a longer-term solution for my anxiety. What I discovered was something I had access to my whole life but had never thought of as a weapon against my panic attacks… my friends.

While I used to be embarrassed about the frequency of my anxiety attacks, I have now found nothing but comfort from my friends. I won’t say that it was easy to work up the courage to confront my closest friends about my uncontrollable emotions. It made me feel weak. It was almost like the anxiety was winning as I opened up about the most vulnerable part of myself that I had hidden for so long. If only I had been able to figure out a long time ago that this could not be further from the truth. If you’re feeling this way and happen to come across this article, then let this be your sign to please reach out if you need help.

The depth of my friendships changed forever after I started to share my experiences with my friends. Even though some needed to search for the right words to say, I could still feel their support. It isn’t their job to be a constant shoulder for me to cry on, or an ear to listen, but that was what they all offered me in their own unique ways. I knew I was putting a lot on their plates as friends. Yet I also figured that if we could make it through a conversation on anxiety, then we would be able to be more open than ever before.

For those who do not experience panic attacks or severe anxiety, it can become overwhelming and upsetting to try to be there for your friends. Even if they are not outright sharing their anxiety symptoms with you, it can be obvious if a close friend is dealing with some mental health issues. If you have ever struggled with having this conversation, know that you are not alone. It is not easy to deal with on either side. I can’t offer any foolproof ways to conquer anxiety. I can, however, provide some examples of ways my friends, family, and peers have supported as well as some tips for approaching the subject.

1. Don’t force them to talk about it.

Even though your friend may share with you that they are struggling, this does not necessarily mean that they want to have open discussions about it. If they are looking for a larger conversation about their anxiety then rest assured that they will tell you. Everyone is different in how they have learned to cope with their emotions. The fact that they have come to you in the first place shows they trust you a great deal. Let them come to you on their own terms.

2. If you are present when your friend is having a panic attack, try your best to remain calm.

Matching their emotions of anxiety can heighten the panic attack's severity. If your friend is distressed about something, say, in a lecture hall, offer to take them on a walk. Once you’re out of the room, offer them comfort and let them know you are there for them. Triggers are everywhere, and are often hard to identify until it is too late. Simply being there for them will let them know they have someone to talk to. Even if they initially feel embarrassed, they will be grateful you were there for them.

3. A text or a call can go a long way.

Simply sending off a text to a friend who has been struggling can be a welcoming surprise that lets them know they aren’t alone. You don’t have to mention their anxiety. Just let them know you are thinking of them. I can’t tell you how many times an unexpected text during a rough time has made me smile and come out of my emotions for a while. Knowing someone took the time to reach out is a comfort in and of itself.

4. You don’t have to understand exactly how they feel; you just have to listen.

Trying to make emotional connections with your friends is an important part of developing your relationship, but the reality is that we will never all experience the exact same things. Even though you and your friend may think or act similarly, their emotional reaction to things will probably differ from yours. You don’t have to understand their feelings. A lot of the time there is no rhyme or reason to why we feel extreme instances of anxiety at random times. We often don’t understand ourselves. There is a big difference between understanding the emotions themselves and recognizing that, regardless, they have had an impact on someone else. While it is nice to find someone who has shared similar experiences as you, it is not an expectation in being a friend. Let them share with you.

Even though I have only mentioned four, there are so many ways you can be there for your friends when anxiety strikes. The most important thing is to just offer a moment of no judgement. It is common to keep emotions and mental health struggles to ourselves out of embarrassment. Being told to seek help is often not enough. As long as you create a trusting environment for your friends (and yourself), the opportunity for discussion will always be present. Even if your friend chooses to keep their anxiety to themselves, there is a good chance that your attempts to be there will not go unnoticed.