When You're Having an Anxiety Attack and Someone Tells You to "Calm Down"

I’ll never forget working in settings over ten years ago where I had to understand crisis deescalation, sitting in a training and being told, “Do not tell someone in crisis to calm down.” I was like, “Gonna keep that in my back pocket. Feels true. Thanks!”

In fact if you’d like to know a surefire way to piss someone off worse (or add some anger sauce on top of whatever else they’re already feeling), tell them to “calm down.”

But when it comes to panic and anxiety attacks specifically, the person having that experience (especially if it is a new experience to them) may be convinced they are having a very real medical emergency. Extreme and worsening shortness of breath can feel like a deadly asthma attack (and this catastrophic interpretation increases the anxiety and shortens the breath further, creating more anxiety in a self-perpetuating feedback loop). Or a pounding heart or chest pain can feel like an actual heart attack.

Often, people who have panic attacks only discover that they have them, or are prone to them, after an ER visit (or two, or a few) and a series of medical rule outs. But those medical rule outs can be helpful in the process of interrupting that self-perpetuating feedback loop. (I.e., “I’ve felt this way before. I found out I don’t have a terrible illness after all. Though it really doesn’t feel like it, I am actually safe.”) And it takes several experiences of practicing interrupting that feedback loop to make a real difference, usually.

If you’re supporting someone having a panic attack from the outside (and you’re both certain it’s not actually a medical emergency), it’s helpful to ground them into their sensory experience of the present moment. It may feel silly, but ask them what colors they see in the environment. What does the chair feel like that they’re sitting on? Have them dig their heels into the ground, or find one part of their body that feels safe, and focus their attention there. Save or share if this might be helpful to you or someone you know, and reach out if you're struggling with this and would like a free 20-minute consultation call about how I can support.