Imagine this: you’re allergic to cats. You’ve just been exposed to cat dander and your eyes are a soggy, drippy red mess. You sneeze uncontrollably multiple times in a row. Your skin becomes itchy, red, and full of welts. You’re feeling pretty miserable.

A friend walks up to you.

“Hey, no worries,” he exclaims casually, “there’s nothing to be allergic to!”

Uh, what?

“Sure there is — I’m allergic to cats,” you’d probably say.

“Nah,” says your friend, “just stop sneezing. You’ll be okay.”

“What?! I can’t just STOP sneezing on a dime,” you retort.

“Sure you can. There’s nothing wrong with you,” he insists.

“Uhm, care to explain these welts, then? And the red eyes? And the sneezing?!”

Sounds frustrating, doesn’t it? If you suffer from allergies, you know that a reaction to an allergen can produce a truly miserable day. And while panic disorder is no allergy, it produces its own unique brand of misery, too.

38 Comments to
What NOT to Say to Someone With Panic Disorder

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  1. The most unhelpful thing anyone ever said to me when I was having a panic attack was, “just sit down and distract yourself with some work or a book.”

    Yeah, like I can focus on something other than the fact that I feel like I’m having a heart attack . . .

  2. I’ve never met anyone who suffers from panic attacks, however, you compare it very well. Just as I can’t make myself feel happy from my depression on a dime. We can’t fully understand what we have not experienced ourselves.

  3. Soooo true! I ‘ve suffered from panic attacks, and love this article.
    The worst thing for me was the look in the eyes of my family and friends, like they were saying “God, how can she not stop the fear, it’s so easy, she just needs to relax…”
    Thx for writing this!

  4. Great article. I especially appreciate the sit down one. I’d likely be guilty of that one. I’ve only had one panic attack in my life and I *did* feel better to sit down but I can see how someone would want/need to use up some of the adrenaline they’re making.

    Allergy is a great comparison because allergies ARE the body over-reacting, just like panic attacks. And yet few people expect that you can control the over-reaction of your body during an allergy attack!

  5. too true. Did you ever have somebody tell you “stop being silly its just…” Thats the worst (in my opinion), when you are panicking about doing something/leaving somewhere and they tun around and say “stop being silly its just going outside”… Cuz I like being perceived as silly and therefor have decided to feign panic to achieve my goal of looking silly….

  6. This is an enlightening article. How about some posts about things you CAN say to help someone?

  7. i say: stop being a wuss and get over it. There’s enough coddling and phony illness in the world already.

    • okay. this is real. this is not some kind of fake illness. it may be mental illness but that does not mean its real. i have a friend that suffers with panic attacks. she hates them, they are the worst things for her. i have been with her when she has them and believe me they are very real with physical symptoms. and do you want to what brings them on? its people like you. people who are judging even though they dont know what is going on. you are alowed opions but dont put them where they can hurt people!

  8. I have suffered from depression and anxiety along with panic attacts for a number of years and it does feel like your having a major heart attack.People who have never had these dont understand and believe we can just stop or shut them down whenever we want but its not that simple.

  9. Many years ago my daughter was in a plane that was hit by lightning. It limped back to the airport and the passengers were put on another plane for their trip. She made one additional flight before her panic set in.

    Ultimately she took a fear of flying class with a psychiatrist – complete with the trip to the airport and actually boarding a plane. After that she was able to fly with her husband a couple of meds. She has flown with friends without a problem.

    But she has not flown in last couple of years because she drove with and my granddogs and flying was not an option.

    Recently she had a recurrence of her fear of flying. I had already made the cross country trip and was to head for the airport to meet her ina few hours. She called me to say that she was at the hub airport having already flown the small leg of her trip but she simply could not board. She was in tears and obviously very stressed.

    I wanted her to join us for her brother’s wedding and wanted to tell her just to breathe and relax but that was not what she needed.

    I told her that I loved her and that I did understand. I asked her how she was going to get back home. I suggested that she stay at a motel since it was too late in the day for her husband to make that 5 hour trip to pick her up.

    She realized later that flying alone was not an option until she had reworked her way through the panic.

    She’s not a wuss and this is not a phony illness. This is a woman who knows how to walk the dogs through the woods with a sheathed sword to protect them all from rattlesnakes.

  10. sometimes i think that reading things like this can sometimes trigger people into attacks .i dont know if its association .what do you think ??

  11. Thanks for everyone’s feedback so far! Anon, good call with the “stop being silly” one. That’s a great addition. There isn’t a trace of validation in it.

    Rosalie — the “better responses” in the post are my personal idea of supportive statements that are good to use while speaking with someone who is panicking. But it WOULD be nice to get everyone’s feedback and compile a huge list of them!

    Zam — just wondering if that’s your example of the “most unhelpful thing you’ve heard” or if those are your honest feelings toward panic. Can you clarify?

  12. For me, I never wanted anyone to know that I was having a panic attack. The only people who have ever seen me panic are doctors and a therapist and I had to change doctors after that. So one important thing to remember is that most people with anxiety disorders are terribly embarrassed or ashamed of their symptoms and don’t want attention drawn to them. So I would add, that sometimes someone panicking just wants to be left alone. For me at least, any attempt by anyone (including therapists) to calm me down just backfired and all I wanted to do was be alone. So you should probably ask the person if they want you there or not.

    Also, for anyone with panic disorder or another anxiety disorder, exercise, is really helpful, particularly when it incorporates bursts of intense energy. Also taking deep breaths and counting to 10 in your head. And doing something to take your mind off your physical symptoms. (taking a walk or talking to a friend for example)

  13. Some helpful things you can say is: (assuming they want you there)
    -I know you are very anxious/panicked/ but this is just your body overreacting and you are not in any real danger. You can get through this.

    -Take deep breathes

    -It’s ok to be anxious.

    -This will pass.

    -If they can, have them think about something else that they like.

    -Offer to take them outside or to another “safe space.” If they aren’t completely panicked, suggest that they watch TV or listen to music.

  14. Great post! I think the most helpful thing a supportive friend or family member can do is to learn and listen about what helps each individual, and to respond to that.

    For example, deep breathing helps me get through a panic attack, but is very difficult to make my body/brain do. Someone sitting with me, helping me count my breaths, helping me start again when it starts racing out of control, hugging me and breathing with me. Just being there and responsive is completely different (for me) than being told “Just take some deep breaths”. The perhaps good idea of deep breathing gets lost in a dismissive delivery.

    I think “just go out and make new friends” was the best cure for social phobia and depression I’ve ever gotten.

  15. Disclaimer: I suffer both debilitating allergies and have suffered panic attacks.

    You give some interesting advice. However, the approach you are talking about is self-centered and based on entitlement.

    The onus is really on us as suffers of disorders (panic, allergies, migraines, etc) to be self-policing for triggers and self-aware during crisis.

    Don’t wait for someone to ask you something stupid. Be pro-active and ask for what you need to produce some control over YOUR situation. Tell people you need a glass of water; or need to go outside; or need to get something from your bag, car, or office. All of these will buy you time and reduce the amount of attention that is exacerbating in so many situations.

    If people are giving you the above questions you should be distancing yourself from them during episodes and talking to them after you calm down. It isn’t their responsibility to nurture you; especially if they are unaware of your needs.

    The defense is self-care and self-awareness.

  16. @zam May you come down with panic disorder some day. I don’t wish bad things on anyone, but if you think for a minute having this disease (for that is what it is-A MEDICAL CONDITION ) is a walk in the park, then you DESERVE to be enlightened with having the condition yourself.

    @Summer Thanks so much for writing this-the allergy analogy was right on target. Maybe a few more folks will “get it”, thanks to what you wrote here. Kudos to you!

  17. My dad: “just get over it.”

    Me: “I will as soon as you get over your FEAR OF HEIGHTS!!!”

  18. The most unhelpful thing you’ve heard from someone who is trying to help?

    Having a panic attack at 30,000 ft -en route to Bangkok: “We are almost there and will start descend soon…”

    That came over as going to last forever. I really thought I wouldn’t make it and even passed out.

  19. Very well done article. The truth is, half of the remarks would go away if we had a cast or bandage on our head. No one would question.

  20. This article wasn’t very helpful or insightful. It comes off as nerdraging with a few copy/pasted facts.

    My partner has this condition. He has found a way to over come it with breathing exercises while he monitors his pulse when he feels the onset of a panic attack. It’s only as debilitating as you let it become. Some are worse than others, but he is able to calm himself down.

    The doctors told him he would be on anti-depressants the rest of his life to control his anxiety. He stopped taking them after the first six months. It has been over 3 years now and he has not had a repeat visit to the emergency room.

    Articles like these belong to the trolls and do nothing for those affected by this illness and the people who are in their lives.

    tl;dr: Instead of venting off frustrations; educate those in your lives and find a way to control your anxiety(be it doctor prescribed or not)/techniques to calm yourself down.

  21. The worst thing I have ever heard is “I can understand what you are going through.” NO YOU CAN NOT. Unless you have had a REAL panic attack (NOT just an anxiety attack) you can not possibly imagine it. As a psycholgist who has had panic attacks (free now for five years with a combination of medications)and has worked with panic disorder it is a horrible feeling the average person could not dream about. If you have really had panic attacks you answer the following two questions the same way. Do you remember your fist panic attack (vividly). What did it feel like (like I was going to die) 90% of people who have their first panic attack call 911 or attempt to get themselves to a hospital. (except me on a plane who had to finish off a half of bottle of wine to settle down).

  22. The double whammy. Grabbing or restraining me when I panic. Last time that happened I recall the panic attack coming on and an hour later in an open field with “how did I get here” The person unfortunately got flung into a wall. I have no memory of that, bolting or driving myself to the field.

  23. The worst advice I’ve gotten? Ha, this isn’t advice.. I’ve been yelled at countless times while crying hysterically, in the midst of a panic attack to “stop crying” = stop hyperventilating and/or fainting every time I stand. This was from a woman who had in the past claimed that she has/had anxiety. I was twelve. The next worst advice? Well, to be completely honest I don’t get panic attacks out of nowhere, I don’t think I ever have except when I was extremely young. (Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine?) The rest it was provoked by being screamed at, exasperated to the point of exhaustion, not being left alone for hours etc. I’m surprised so many people got ‘advice.’ I wasn’t aware panic attacks occurred seemingly fairly randomly?

  24. @mynameisdavey: I’m sorry to hear you didn’t find any benefit from this heartfelt post. As a support person for your partner, what statements/sentiments does your partner find helpful or comforting to hear during the midst of panic?

    @beenthere: Agreed. Panic disorder a very invisible disorder! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard remarks like “But you don’t LOOK nervous!”.

    @Candy: Your “NO YOU CAN NOT” really resonated for me. You bring up a great point: sympathy probably isn’t as helpful as empathy. Does anyone disagree & find comfort from sympathy?

  25. As someone who has dealt with a good deal of panic and anxiety, I found this article very helpful… though probably not nearly as helpful as someone who could benefit from it much more, someone who does not suffer from an panic disorder and therefore doesn’t know how to react when someone does. For years my sister had severe panic attacks and I would try to help her by saying, “There’s nothing wrong! What are you even worrying about? Everything is fine!” Of course I only succeeded in aggravating the situation. An article like this would have benefitted me so much to help me better understand what she was going through.

    As it turned out, I was soon to experience it myself and now that I understand what she was feeling, I am infuriated that I handled her panic with such levity and lack of concern. I showed compassion, yes, and tried to help, but not in the way I should have. Had I not started to suffer from similar attacks myself, I would probably still be reciting the same rubbish to her. Those who do not suffer from a panic disorder cannot truly know what it feels like, but knowing what NOT to say to someone suffering from a panic attack is valuable information.

    I’m not familiar with the term “nerdraging” and I do not know who the trolls are that should be reading this, but I hope it helps those trolls understand what to do when a friend is suffering from a panic attack. Having been on both sides of an anxiety attack, I definitely think this article by Ms. Beretsky should be required reading.

  26. Several years ago I was the victim of an assault by drugging which left me having panic attacks. Luckily I went to my applied kinesiologist who told me that “panic is in the gut”, meaning that the neurotransmitters needed to counteract panic are made in the gut. She treated me for a year with supplements and the panic went away. Interestingly, she warned me against psyche meds, stating they don’t really heal anything.
    Dave

  27. I don’t know if part of my “attacks” are anxiety. I have a head injury and there are times my brain is full and can take no more. I have the flight response — I need to get away; stop the influx of information. My attacks must appear to be anxiety to others, because I have heard many of same things said to me (like what is mentioned on this page.)
    And I know what steps to take — to isolate myself. It is harder for those around me to understand that I struggle even to be able to tell them the word “GO!” The more that comes at me, the less I can export anything (words, gestures).

    But the thing that gets me the most — at that moment, or later when someone thinks they are being supportive – *is using the word “just” to begin any sentence.* Using that word implies a simplicity to the situation, it implies I am stupid. Do not minimalize it — as you can see it ain’t beautiful. Judging me and/or my experience only serves yourself; it does nothing to help me.

    The other approach I’ve experienced often – is for someone to ask me what happened, etc. If I speak of it, I am very very likely to be taken to the edge of it again and repeat the experience. I need time and distance — and to talk to a professional. The last thing I need is to get tangled up again. Trust that I work to learn from my experiences so that I don’t have to go there again. But my timing and methods of addressing things are not your own.

    The BEST reaction during an episode I ever have is for someone to walk away.

    The BEST follow-ups are – “Can I help? How?” or “Do you want to talk?” or “I’m here if you want me.” I have just been in a situation where I don’t have control. Let me get myself back, and let me have control over it.

  28. I don’t think I have a panic disorder, but I’m pretty sure I had a panic attack once, I was studying for midterms and I was incredibly stressed out, and so I didn’t understand the material because I was so caught up in my negative thoughts I couldn’t make sense of it. My mother comes into the room as my breathing’s short and irregular, not hyperventilating though. My heart was beating like sixty and I was shaking in my seat. All I could think of was “failure failure failure.” I was in a ball tapping my foot as fast as it could get to calm myself down, and my mom walks into the room and says “You’re overreacting. Stop being so high-strung. Control yourself.” I HATED that.

  29. I was pulled over for swerving on suspicion of DUI, I was on probabation almost 2 years from one and I cannot refuse the tests and have a 0 tolerance requirement so I started to panic as I had been drinking, but not much and hadn’t even thought of it. I blew a .039 and was accused of putting my tongue over it so I got to go to the hospital for a toxicology that came back .039 and of course my medication, Xanax…. they locked me up for as long as they could without charges and isolated me and kept yelling “Stop it!” and the such and of course that made it worse. I asked to speak with a mental health professional but didn’t see one for 10 hours. I asked to call my Therapist, no. I then asked for the number to the Mental Health Crisis Hotline, no. When the Shrink finally showed, he told me it was MY fault they were treating me harshly, no I could not have my xanax in jail, and left. Finally the Medic came by and said I had high blood pressure (you think??) and gave me 6 unindentified pills that they kept feeding me thankfully so I slept through most of my jail time. I am disabled with severe anxiety, panic disorder, isn’t all that a huge violation of not “accomidating my disability”?

  30. Nothing worse then feeling like your going to die, but death doesn’t come. The pain getting stronger ang stronger. Then to ice the cake, the wife says”Quit faking, stop it,I’m calling the police and 911,what’s wrong with you!!!!!!!. It sucks feeling this way. I’m glad there are people are there that do understand. I can’t even tell my wife to stop verbally attacking me during my panic attacks. Through the sobs I beg her to stop, but she doesn’t. Does anyone here know of a link that shows that dangers of yelling or verbally attacking someone having a panic attack? Thanks for letting breath on this site.

  31. Another worst:
    “Just get over it”

    On top of everything else that is going on at that moment, hearing that phrase absolutely infuriates me. NO ONE experiencing a true panic attack wants to hear that!

  32. Does beer help?

    Just asking.

    • Doesn’t it ALWAYS?

  33. I have heard all of these before, my personal favorite was being told by an OB once to shut up & deal w/it bc it was a normal part of pregnancy. No, I never trusted her again & it made it impossible for me to trust other dr’s esp OBs again during pregnancy.
    Ironically, in my job I deal w/children during medical emergencies where I see alot of panic attacks bc they are young children and are terrified bc of the injury or illness they are in the mist of..I try everything from telling & showing them how to take deep breaths to try and calm down their breathing to telling them it’s ok to be afraid, scared or hurt or even cry if we need to but we must try our best to breath deep and try and talk so that we can help you feel better so they can talk to us about what’s going on what happened/how they got injured or what is sick so we can get them the help they need in order to feel/get better. Normally, it works great & w/in a few minutes they are breathing better able to talk in few simple word sentences, they normally still cry but not the screaming/yelling that normally accompanies children in pain/ill. Even at their young age they begin to understand that it is easier for people to understand what they are needing to help them if they can breath, try and talk it out (even in simple few word sentences) and let their body do what it needs to do to handle the crisis (if they need to get sick/not to fight it let it happen, if it’s sand in their eyes, it’s okay to cry to help wash it out, if they bump their heads it’s ok to cry and say this is where it hurts). People are amazed how much they are willing to talk to adults who are willing to just stop and listen to them and reasure them that it’s going to be okay & that you are there to help them thru this injury/illness and the fear that comes with it.
    Now if we can only teach adults how to do this with other adults rather then telling them you are a grown adult, stop whinning, get over it, you are just trying to get attention, etc. That stuff doesn’t help anyone least of all the person suffering from a panic attack.

  34. Stupidest comment even DOCTORS have said while I’m in a panic attack is “It’s all in your head!” Duh! No shit Sherlock! But that doesn’t make it stop! Also, because I have had panic disorder and bipolar, many times I’ve gone to the ER in horrible pain and unable to breathe, only to be dismissed as having an anxiety attack and sent home, STILL NOT BREATHING, like that’s okay! There was no apology when it turned out after being turned away five times, that I needed urgent surgery and had a growth in my lung! It’s a form of discrimination that, because you have a mental disorder, you are treated like your pain is not real. Even if it is a panic attack, the PAIN is still very much real! Then, they don’t test in case it is something serious. In my case, I could have died because of their stupidity!

  35. What not to say to someone with a panic disorder; “it’s a decision.” I have a lot of feeling, thoughts and emotions around that statement, but have not wrapped my head around the root of that statement…

    Thoughts?

  36. Thanks for this article, I’ve just come to terms months ago I have anxiety issues, probably because of my sleep apnea…I’ve read up a lot on what the brain’s doing, how to cope, etc…and was doing great until this past Friday at work where a panic attack stuck out of blue.
    It was a particularly rough one, and I WAS working through it and explained to my co-workers the perplexed look on my face. It was going down until my boss took me aside and began to lecture me about seeing a doctor if it was going to affect my work (this was the first time such an attack did). When he said “I was acting like a mental case” I went to into full blown panic attack – heart rate went right up, I could feel hives pushing through, hard time breathing, teras coming out….the whole time I was telling him he wasn’t helping, and my brain was simply producing too much adrenaline. Nope. He kept going.
    Wanna know the best? He tried ‘reassuring’ me he had anxiety in the past and knew what I was going through. Uh huh.
    All weekend I’ve had flashbacks of him essentially calling me a mental case, and now I’m dreading work tomorrow. I’m tired of the stigma.
    It’s just nice to see this article as it confirms what I knew then and now. Pity many don’t. Thanks for reading, it feels nice to get that off my chest.

  37. Thank you all for sharing your stories and thoughts.
    I am the partner of someone who suffers panic attacks. She goes through all these same scenarios and I feel helpless, especially if I’m away (work,or just away from home). She communicates her needs to me well but, I confess, I don’t always feel “present.” What I mean by this is maybe I’ve had a bad day at work, stress, tired, and for longer than I’ve realized, depressed myself. So I feel distant and helpless and don’t always feel like I have the ability to help her when all she asks of me is to hold her.All I want to do is be there, but as I said before, I feel like I can’t. I know that sounds terrible, I want to be her biggest supporter, and I thought I was until she tells me that I’m not there for her. After our 5 year relationship, I need advice on what’s the best way to help her while putting my own stresses aside for her. I love her, I need to be better at this.please help. Any advice is greatly appreciated.
    I wish you all wellness and health.

  38. A few more to avoid:

    10. Aw, expiration dates are total B. S.!

    9. I don’t think there ARE any venimous spiders/snakes.insects/squirrels in this part of the country. ARE there?

    8. Jeez, I sure hope this plane doesn’t have one of those Chinese made tail sections.

    7. Nevermind that squeaking in the walls. It’s just the bats.

    6. 468 days without an accident? You’re KIDDING! How much longer can THAT go on?

    5. You had the chicken parm? Me, too. Man, I feel like CRAP! :-P

    4. Is your seatbelt fastened? Good. I saw this in a cartoon, but I’m pretty sure I can do it. (Stephen Wright)

    3. Are your pupils the same size?

    2. He’s probably NOT a terrorist.

    1. AWW, GAAAHD, NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  39. I wasn’t having a panic attack at the time but someone told me I should try and stop myself getting wound up all the time.

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