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An athlete’s checklist for managing anxiety or panic attacks

Kid

Parent

Teen

Athlete

Anxiety

Mindfulness

July 14, 2023

Whether you’re a parent or a coach, helping young athletes navigate sports-related anxiety or panic attacks can be confusing and even scary for everyone. 

Maybe a child or teen has a big game coming up and they begin to panic every time they step on the field or you’ve noticed that they become extremely overwhelmed by having to juggle homework and practice. These moments can be tough to navigate, but we have evidence-based tools you can use to help de-escalate panic in the moment. 

What is an anxiety attack? 

Anxiety can be a feature of many situations and conditions. An “anxiety attack” is something that usually occurs in response to certain stressors and can be a severe feeling of apprehension, worry, distress, or restlessness. It may build gradually and last for an extended period of time. 

In actuality, it is less of an “attack” and more of a “state of feeling” that can last hours or days. Other symptoms that one might feel are shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, dry mouth, sweating, trouble sleeping, shaking or feeling dizzy.

A “panic attack” is a sudden or intense feeling of overwhelming fear. Someone having a panic attack may feel like their heart is racing and they may become short of breath or feel like they are choking. Dizziness or nausea may also be side effects. These attacks can happen without a cause or can be caused by an external stressor (think a person who is afraid of flying and is trying to get on an airplane).

If you or a child is trying to figure out which one is happening, the strongest indicator is how it comes on: Is it sudden or does it build slowly over time? Now that we determined if it’s an anxiety or panic attack, let’s talk about how to help. 

Preventative steps to take

To prevent or to lessen the severity of anxiety attacks, you can help a child or teen try one of the following: 

  • Take good care of the body. Getting proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise can make a big difference in how an athlete feels. Drinking water is also key, as a lack of hydration can affect the body’s function and put you at risk for anxiety. Work with them to develop a strong bedtime routine that allows for them to get enough hours of sleep, and discuss which nutritious meals they’d like to help make for the week.
  • Tap into relaxation practices. Breathing exercises can calm both the body and mind when we start to feel panicked. You can use a guided breathing exercise online or teach a child to try “box breathing” on their own. It looks like this:
  1. Breathe out slowly and release all of the air in your lungs. 
  2. Breathe in through your nose, slowly counting to four.  
  3. Hold your breath for a count of four.
  4. Exhale for a count of four.
  5. Hold your breath again for a count of four.
  6. Repeat for three to four rounds. 
  • Schedule downtime to do something fun. Being anxious about something in the future, like a big game or tryouts, can be super overwhelming. Encourage your athlete to take a break from things that are stressful and go for a walk in nature, take a bath, or call a friend. Anything that is just for them.
  • Make a list of the things you can control. Work with your child or teen to pull their focus away from things that happened in the past or something that may occur in the future and get grounded in the present moment. Remind them that they are okay at this moment and that they'll be capable of handling anything that comes their way. 

What to do during a panic attack

  • Close your eyes. Typically there is an external cause of what is causing the panic and if your child closes their eyes, chances are they will not see what is causing the stress and this will give them time to figure out what to do next. 
  • Find a focus object. If they don’t want to close their eyes, help them find a focus object. It might be looking at a tree or a piece of art on the wall. If panic attacks happen often, have them carry a smooth rock or an object in their pocket that they can take out and focus on when they need it. 
  • Connect with a calming scent. Have something that smells like lavender on hand and use it to practice deep breathing. This is a natural remedy that has been shown to reduce stress and help people relax.
  • Focus on the breath. To slow rapid breathing, focus on slowing the breath or just trying to breathe normally. Help your child try belly breathing: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and let it out for 4 counts. Do this 4 times and see how they are feeling.
  • Picture a happy place. Have them think of a place that is quiet, calm and relaxing. Have them imagine they are there and focus on the details. How would it feel, what would they see, what would they smell, and what would they hear?
  • Try a mantra.  You can have them use something like, “This will pass” or another comforting mantra. Though an attack may feel endless, it will pass. 

Watching a child or teen experience anxiety and panic can be overwhelming, so remember that Bend is here to support you and your athlete when you need us.

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