Panic attacks are a real response that people have for a variety of reasons. There is not one specific thing that applies to everyone and every situation. Rather, each person has different things that trigger a panic attack and different responses.
This can be difficult to navigate as an adult, but it is particularly challenging to watch a child struggling with panic attacks. It can be hard to know how to help him or her. The best way to start is by understanding what a panic attack is. Once you understand what it is, you can also learn simple tactics to ease a panic attack.
The basics of panic attacks.Panic attacks are connected to feelings of anxiety. When you have a sudden onset of anxiety or panic, you can have physical responses. “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” (Mayo Clinic)
These episodes often start without any warning, causing a sudden onset of symptoms. It is particularly challenging as you cannot predict a panic attack and they can strike at any time.
They typically last a few minutes. The person can feel tired or worn out after the panic attack subsides. These symptoms can be quite intense and mimic serious medical conditions.
Children are not exempt from these problems. They can have panic attacks just like adults do. It is not the child’s fault. It is important to take the child seriously, offering support and love as you figure out how to help him or her.
What a child might experience during a panic attack.
Children experience intense anxiety or fear during a panic attack. These intense feelings cause uncomfortable or distressing physical symptoms.
These can include the following:
- A sudden sense of impending doom or danger.
- Fear of death.
- Tightness in the throat.
- Hot flashes or flushed feeling.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Stomach cramping.
- Tingling sensation.
- Racing heart.
Every child is different and his or her physical experiences will be different during a panic attack. Consider your child and pay attention to his or her unique responses.
What does not help during a panic attack.
As you begin to understand what a panic attack is, you should also know what not to do. Sometimes the way parents respond can make things worse. Consider how you react to your child when they have a panic attack. Are you supporting them? Are you offering love and grace? This is what your child needs.
Things that do not help include the following:
Telling your child to snap out of it.
A panic attack is not something someone can just snap out of or turn off.
Telling your child to stop being dramatic.
This is a dramatic experience, but not in the way you think. It is not an attempt at causing drama. Rather, it is intense and real.
Laughing at your child.
There is nothing funny about a panic attack. The things your child experiences are real and frightening.
Drawing attention to it.
While your child needs your support, they don’t need extra attention from other people during a panic attack. Try to help your child without making it a spectacle.
Your child needs your help and support during a panic attack. While it is unclear what causes all panic attacks, your child can find a way to work through them, and you can help.
Ways to help stop a panic attack.During a panic attack, your child will likely feel afraid. If it is the first panic attack, he or she may not know what is happening. This can make it feel worse. If this is a repeated problem, your child may have anxiety about the onslaught of feelings and lack the understanding of why it’s happening.
In the middle of a panic attack, you don’t need to figure any of this out. The most important thing during a panic attack is to help the child feel safe and to ease his or her symptoms. Your child needs to know you are there to protect, help, and get him or her through what is happening.
There are some simple things you can do to help bring a panic attack to an end. These are strategies you can implement with your child during a panic attack to bring relief.
Ice water or cold water provides a shock to the system that tells your body to change what it’s doing. This is the mammalian diving reflex. It causes your body to conserve oxygen and slow your heart rate, interrupting panic signals. Your child can try submerging his or her face in cold water, splashing his or her face with cold water, or even putting an icepack on his or her face.
Trace palm circles.
This simple tactic is wonderful because it is discreet. Your child can slowly draw a circle on his or her palm using the finger from his or her opposite hand. As your child does this, he or she can breathe deeply and watch his or her finger. This simple tactic shifts focus to a specific part of your child’s body. Doing this calms the panic in the brain.
Smell something good.
Scent is a strong yet often underestimated sense. If there is a scent that evokes positive memories or feelings, your child can bring some calm amid a panic attack. To have the scent with you, you can bring a small piece of fabric or paper in your bag. Your child can smell it when he or she needs it.
Use your imagination. The imagination is a powerful tool. While it may not feel easy, consider helping your child imagine a place that brings him or her peace or happiness. This can be an actual place or someplace he or she creates in his or her mind. During a panic attack, the child can picture this place and think about smells, sights, feels, and sounds. Take time to focus on the details. Your child can even bring a picture to help do this when he or she needs it.
Notice things around you.
To shift the mind from the panic he or she feels, have your child name what he or she sees, hears, smells, or feels. Name objects your child sees like the lamppost or the coffee table. Identify a smell like trees or dinner cooking. Taking time to identify these things shifts the brain to consider the concrete things around your child that fills his or her senses. This interrupts the panic messages in the child’s brain.
Muscle tension and relaxation.
Tightening and releasing muscles progressively activates all the muscles in the body and then brings release. This can help slow your child to a restful state. Start with the toes and tighten and release the muscles. Slowly move up the body, tightening muscles and releasing until you get to the top of the head. Your child can repeat this cycle to bring relief.
Seeking long-term solutions for your child.
These are great strategies to implement to bring relief amid panic attacks. But it is also important to address panic attacks and find long-term solutions for your child. While there is no cure for panic attacks, your child can learn ways to overcome panic attacks by making them less frequent and less intense or eliminating them altogether.
A professional counselor is a great resource in this process. Working with a counselor can help your child get to the root cause of their panic attacks and find tools to help them deal with whatever is happening.
This is a process. It is not a simple thing for which you can get a prescription. But with time and commitment to the work, your child can find relief. Trained counselors are invaluable in this process. They will support your child along the way.
Fill out the contact form or call our office today to connect with me or another counselor who can help your child find relief from panic attacks.
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