5 Ways You Can Help Your Family Member with a Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a highly-stressful and disabling condition. Those who have it will usually need help from mental health professionals to overcome their most troubling symptoms. But the compassionate, empathic intervention of loved ones is also vital to healing. When family members are involved in recovery, it can make a decisive difference in the final outcome. Treatment for panic disorder works, and it works even better when it has the full and active support of spouses, siblings, parents, and others in the extended family.

Nearly every family will be touched by panic disorder. The condition is too common to be avoided completely.

If you have someone in your family who struggles with panic attacks, you can and should support them in their efforts to heal and recover. Once you know how to help someone with a panic disorder, you can make a positive and lasting impact in their lives.

What Is Panic Disorder?

In any given year, 2.7 percent of American adults will experience the symptoms of a panic disorder. The lifetime incidence for the condition is 4.7 percent. This means that one out of every 21 people will experience frightening and disabling panic attacks at some time in their lives.

Panic disorder is one of six types of anxiety disorder. The others are obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. It is important to be aware of these other disorders, since those who experience panic attacks often have other anxiety disorders as well.

How to Recognize a Panic Disorder


Panic disorders are characterized by the physically overwhelming nature of the symptoms they produce. They cause anxiety at a level that can reach the crisis stage quickly. While those who have panic attacks don’t normally collapse or pass out, the fear that they might is enough to leave them overwhelmed and desperate to escape.

The most common signs of panic disorder include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Stomach cramps and nausea
  • Feelings of dizziness or vertigo
  • Heavy sweating
  • Sudden sensitivity to light or sound
  • Chest pains or tightness
  • Tingling or numbness in the extremities
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Obsessive thoughts about fainting or falling
  • Extreme preoccupation with the physical symptoms of anxiety, which inevitably makes them worse
  • Feeling an urgent need to flee the situation

The onset of a panic attack will occur suddenly, without much or any warning. Panic attacks may recur in the same or similar environments. Or, they may be provoked by different environments. But regardless of their triggers, they are always frightening and overwhelming.

Men and women who experience repeated attacks will avoid situations they think might induce terrifying symptoms. Naturally, this can cause significant life disruption, including job loss if the work environment is perceived as threatening. At its most extreme, panic disorder can lead to agoraphobia, leaving sufferers homebound and miserable.

Initially, those who have panic attacks often assume something is wrong with them physically. They will frequently report persistent aches and pains that seem to accompany their symptoms of anxiety.

But physical signs of discomfort are actually a common manifestation of anxiety disorders. Mental health experts will recognize them as signs of excessive anxiety and not the cause of it.

People experiencing panic symptoms should be evaluated first by a physician, to rule out any potential physical problems or diseases. Assuming nothing is found, the next step is to be evaluated by a psychologist or psychiatrist. If panic disorder is eventually diagnosed, treatment should begin immediately.

Mental health professionals can offer evidence-based counseling and prescribe medications that are effective at reducing the incidence of panic attacks. This type of assistance is essential to a person diagnosed with any type of anxiety-related condition.

But friends and family members also have a role to play in the long-term healing process. As long as you are careful and attentive, you can help your loved one overcome the debilitating effects of their panic disorder.

How to Help Someone with a Panic Disorder


Panic disorder is scary. But going through it alone is even scarier.

People with anxiety disorders need good support networks. If you are truly committed to helping your loved one survive their struggles with panic disorder, here’s how you can help:

#1 Accompany them in situations where their discomfort level is high

Men and women with panic disorder feel incredibly vulnerable to a condition they don’t believe they can control. But if they have someone to lean on, figuratively and literally, it can help them avoid panic attacks altogether.

You can act as a kind of security blanket. Your reassuring words and actions will help them conquer their fear of something terrible happening.

But if your presence isn’t enough, and they do experience a panic attack while you’re with them, you can help minimize their discomfort. Just talking about what they’re experiencing can help them manage their symptoms more effectively, as long as they have a sympathetic ear to rely on. They may also feel more comfortable leaving stressful situations if they have someone else to go with them.

#2 Stay calm and patient

The physical and mental symptoms of panic attacks tend to reinforce each other in a negative feedback loop. Fear of the consequences only increases the intensity of the specific manifestations of panic. As those symptoms worsen the fear will then become greater, leaving the person in an increasingly desperate situation.

During this destructive process, you can act as a calming influence and a voice of reason. Your patience and placidity can produce a sympathetic response in the person having the panic attack, interrupting the progression of the attack and preventing it from turning into something far more serious.

Intervening may not end the panic attack completely. But your soothing presence can help convert it into something more manageable and less earth-shattering.

#3 Help keep their minds on other things

People with panic disorder shouldn’t dwell on their conditions. Their negative thoughts and emotions are often their worst enemy. This is true during a panic attack, but it can be true before the onset of an attack as well. Worrying about attacks can help bring them on, since they lead to overreaction at even the slightest hint of a symptom.

However, when the mind of a panic disorder sufferer is focused on something else, it can inoculate them against the effects of too much worry. It can shake them out of their overly self-conscious slumber. Even when an attack is occurring, its intensity can be reduced if the person’s mind can be diverted to other things.

Interesting conversations and shared activities can keep panic away. Not all the time, but at least some of the time. You should speak slowly and keep the topics or actions relatively simple. This way, the person’s attention can shift and their focus becomes engaged more easily.

#4 Emphasize the importance of breathing

One consistent factor for people suffering a panic attack is disruption of the breathing process. People in the throes of panic make their symptoms and their anxiety worse by breathing too fast, too slowly, too shallowly, or too deeply. These alterations and inconsistencies only feed into the anxiety, making it difficult to regain mental and emotional control when panic starts to take hold.

By assuming the role of breathing coach, you can help them become conscious of how their breathing patterns have become self-defeating. The goal is to help them return to a more natural rhythm, breathing in and out through the nose at a steady and relaxed pace.

This won’t end the panic attack immediately. But it can halt its progress and help the person having the attack feel more empowered and in control. In the future, breathing techniques should be a part of their anti-anxiety arsenal.

#5 Make sure they are evaluated and treated for all mental and behavioral health conditions

Ultimately, a mental health professional must accurately diagnose panic disorder before appropriate treatment can begin. But it is important to realize that panic disorder usually occurs in tandem with other mental or behavioral health disorders.

One study found that 15 percent of people with anxiety disorders also had active substance use disorders. This is nearly twice the rate of substance abuse found among the general public. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of men and women with depression will have co-occurring anxiety disorders. Many people who have one anxiety disorder will also suffer from others, and the symptoms of conditions like social anxiety disorder, PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder often precede the onset of panic attacks.

To ensure effective healing, all disorders present must be diagnosed and addressed during treatment. Each must be given equal priority. When substance use disorders are present, dual diagnosis treatment programs offered by residential mental health treatment centers offer the best hope for recovery.

Mental health professionals understand that comorbid conditions are often implicated in the development or continuation of panic disorder. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea for you to stay involved in the evaluation and treatment process, as an advisor, supporter, and companion. You can be your loved one’s advocate, making it your responsibility to see that no aspect of their ill health is neglected.

You must encourage your loved one to be honest about all the symptoms they’ve experienced. Their doctors need to know what they’ve been feeling and what has been happening in their lives.

Even the most experienced and qualified medical professionals need cooperation from patients. Only then will they be able to make a completely accurate diagnosis. Or develop treatment plans that are as comprehensive as required.

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Treatment Plus the Support of Family Can Make the Difference


Treatment for panic disorder is usually quite effective. Most people who get help for their panic attacks can learn to manage their symptoms and resume living a normal life.

Recovery may require time in a residential treatment facility for those who have co-occurring disorders. Substance use disorders can be an especially troubling complication. But for patients determined to regain their health, the complexity of the treatment program will not reduce the likelihood of a successful outcome.

The dynamics of panic disorder can be difficult to comprehend for those who haven’t experienced the condition. Nevertheless, you should strive to accept your loved one’s testimony and behavior without judgment or confusion. If you can avoid becoming frustrated and remain committed to being a positive force in their lives, your efforts to help can assist the recovery process and make it far more likely to achieve excellent results.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.