What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden, intense feeling of fear or anxiety. It can come on without warning and can be very overwhelming. Symptoms of a panic attack may include:
- Pounding or racing heart
- Shortness of breath or feeling like you can’t catch your breath
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Feeling of unreality or detachment from yourself
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
Panic attacks affect both children and adults. They are a scary experience for anyone, but they are especially difficult for children who don’t understand what’s happening to them and for parents witnessing their child’s sudden descent into panic.
How are Panic Attacks Different from General Anxiety or Worry?
Most people experience some degree of anxiety or worry at some point in their lives. This is perfectly normal and helps us to stay alert and focused. However, when anxiety starts to interfere with our daily lives, it may be a sign of a more serious problem.
One type of anxiety disorder is known as a panic attack. Panic attacks are characterized by sudden, intense episodes of anxiety that can include a racing heart, chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness. These symptoms can be so severe that they feel like a heart attack or stroke. Panic attacks usually last for a few minutes, but the aftermath can last for hours or even days.
People with panic disorder live in fear of having another panic attack and often avoid situations that they think might trigger one. This can make it difficult to go to work, go to school, or even leave the house.
General anxiety, on the other hand, is a more chronic form of anxiety that is not usually associated with any specific trigger. People with general anxiety may feel anxious all the time, even when there is nothing specific to worry about. This can make it difficult to focus on everyday tasks and can lead to feelings of fatigue.
While both panic attacks and general anxiety can be debilitating, they are different conditions that require different treatments.
How can you determine what you’re experiencing?
According to Amanda Spray, Ph.D., Clinic Director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center and a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City, it’s about timing and onset. “The difference between the two is about the suddenness of the feelings — usually (but not always) people who get panic attacks will feel okay before it happens.”
Panic attack symptoms usually resolve within 30 to 60 minutes, while anxiety feelings linger.
How Can You Help Your Child Manage A Panic Attack?
There are several things you can do to support your child and help them manage a panic attacks.
Panic attacks are scary for anyone, but they are especially frightening for children. There are a few things you can do to help your child deal with a panic attack which all center around the idea of emotional co-regulation. The focus of co-regulation is to be the calm, grounded, coach who supports your child to re-gain their ability to regulate their feelings. Here’s how:
First, stay calm. It will be hard to remain calm if you are feeling panicked, but it is important to try. Your child will look to you for guidance on how to react and witnessing your anxiety will only make the situation worse. It will actually trigger the emotional regions of their brain that there is something to be afraid of that they can’t see or hear. So stay calm.
Second, help your child focus on their breathing. Encourage them to take slow, deep breaths and to count each breath as they exhale. This will help them to focus on something other than their fear and should help to slow down their heart rate. Breathe in for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four and then exhale for a count of four.
Third, try to distract your child from their fear. This can be tricky, but if you can get them talking about something else, singing a song or playing a game, it can help take their mind off of the panic attack.
Finally, don’t try to force your child to do anything they are uncomfortable with. If they want to sit or lie down, that is fine. Just let them know that you are there for them and that the attack will eventually pass.
If your child has panic attacks on a regular basis, it is important to talk to a professional. There are well-researched treatments available that can help to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.
Additionally, you can do things based on your child’s age and developmental level. For example:
If your preschooler has a panic attack, there are some things you can do to help.
Make sure you keep yourself calm. It can be hard to see your child in distress, but it’s important to remain calm. You panicking causes your child to think something is wrong, worsening their panic.
Next, help your child identify what may be triggering the attack. It could be a specific situation, like being in a crowded place, or it could be something more general, like feeling overwhelmed. Once you know what the trigger is, you can help your child avoid it or deal with it in a healthy way.
Finally, encourage your child to use some coping mechanisms. Deep breathing, for example, can help ease the symptoms of a panic attack. It’s also helpful to anticipate panic attack triggers and deal with them before they blossom.
You can deal with a panic attack of an elementary school-aged child in much the same way as a preschooler. The difference is an older child can communicate more about how they are feeling and what triggered the attack. They’ll be better at describing their thoughts and feelings.
You can also help your child learn to distract themselves from focusing on their distressing feelings. Whereas you might distract a preschooler with a fun game or toy, you can encourage your older child to do the same on their own without as much assistance from you.
Essentially, the technique of dealing with the attack is the same, but the older child is better able to cognitively self-soothe without as much direction from you once they learn the skill.
If your high schooler is having panic attacks or you’re a teenager dealing with them, there are several things you can do to make the experience less stressful.
First, know that you aren’t dying or going crazy. Explain this to your child and let them know that, while it’s not normal, it isn’t fatal and they’ll get through it.
Next, try these tips or share this list of tips with your child:
It’s easier said than done, but try to avoid panicking when you feel a panic attack coming on. The more you can keep yourself calm, the less severe your symptoms will be.
Focus on Deep Breathing
Take slow, deep breaths and focus on exhaling slowly. This can help to slow down your heart rate and ease some of the physical symptoms of panic.
Ride It Out
Panic attacks usually peak after about 10 minutes, so try to ride out the wave of anxiety until it starts to lessen.
If you can focus on something else, it can help take your mind off of the panic and make it easier to ride out.
Talk to a Trusted Loved One or Mental Health Professional
Sometimes just talking to someone else about what’s going on can help to ease the symptoms of a panic attack.