The kid’s checklist for managing anxiety or panic attacks
Has your child or teen ever gotten really worked up about something and felt really overwhelmed? Has this ever happened to you as a parent? Have they ever said they have had an anxiety or panic attack? These attacks can be scary for kids and parents alike, but there are things you can do to help in the moment.
First, let’s define each:
- Anxiety can be a feature of many situations and conditions. An “anxiety attack” is something that people refer to as a severe feeling of apprehension and worry, distress, restlessness and can last a long time. Usually a person is worried about something that is going to happen and the feeling comes on gradually. 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.
- On the other hand, a “panic attack” is a sudden or intense feeling of overwhelming fear. During this episode, one will feel like their heart is racing, they are short of breath or feel like they are choking. One might feel dizzy, nauseous. 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 your 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. For anxiety attacks, much of what you can do is preventative:
- Take good care of yourself by getting sleep and exercise.
- Drink water! Not getting enough water can really affect your body’s function and puts you at risk for anxiety.
- Learn to relax. Try to practice deep breathing when you’re relaxed, so that during heightened periods of anxiety, you can use this technique in the moment to calm yourself down.
- Schedule “downtime” to do something fun. Being anxious about something in the future can be very overwhelming. Try to take a break from things that are stressful and go for a walk in nature or take a bubble bath. Anything that is just for you.
- Focus on the things you can control. If you are anxious about something that happened, say to yourself “I can’t change what happened; why worry about it.” There are opportunities to learn and be better in the future, but you cannot change the past unless you have a time machine (which I don’t have!). If you are worried about something in the future, focus on what you can control now. Is there anything you can do to change the situation in the moment? If the answer is no, try to let it go.
For panic attacks, try these steps:
- Close your eyes. Typically there is an external cause of what is causing the panic and if you close your eyes, chances are you will not see what is causing the stress and this will give you time to figure out what to do next.
- If you don’t want to close your eyes, find a focus object. It might be looking at a rock or a point on the wall. If panic attacks happen often, carry a smooth rock or an object in your pocket that you can take out and focus on when you need it.
- Have something that smells like lavender on hand. This is a natural remedy that has been shown to reduce stress and help people relax.
- To slow rapid breathing, focus on slowing the breath or just trying to breathe normally. 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 you are feeling.
- Picture your happy place. Picture a place that is quiet, calm and relaxing. Imagine yourself there and focus on the details. How would it feel, what would you see, what would you smell, what would you hear?
- Once you have done all of this, or you can’t do any of these steps, try this final one: “This too will pass.” or another mantra. Though an attack may feel endless, it will pass.
There are steps to help in the moment, but there are additional tools and techniques that can be helpful. Bend Health is here to teach you about anxiety and panic attacks, ways to prevent it and evaluate for medication if necessary.