She’s trembling, she can’t breathe, and she’s hyperventilating, all at the same time. She panics, you panic. Welcome to the world of anxiety attacks. They can come on suddenly and without warning to people who suffer from anxiety. Although stress and anxiety exacerbate the likelihood of having a panic attack, the attacks can happen at any time, even during sleep. They can be scary, for the person having it and the one witnessing it.
When it’s your child who is out of control, it’s easy to be scared and to feel powerless. But we aren’t, and they aren’t either.
Years ago my daughter Kylie was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD. It’s estimated that 60 percent of people with ADHD have a coexisting condition. About 50 percent of adults and 30 percent of children with ADHD have an anxiety disorder. The conditions have unique symptoms, but sometimes they mirror each other. It was agonizing to see Kylie in the throes of an anxiety attack. It still is, but they are rare and short now, thanks to her medicine and the strategies we discovered to move her through an attack.
It’s critical that you accept the attack as real. The dizziness, sweating, chest pain, racing heart — all of it is real. When my daughter has an anxiety attack, her body is having a fight-or-flight false alarm. It feels to her as if she is dying because the physiological changes are actually occurring. Don’t tell her that it’s just in her head or that she’s OK, because she isn’t feeling OK. In fact, she’s not able to think clearly. Her brain is affected by racing thoughts, excessive worry, and a feeling of impending doom.
So what can you do? Start by holding her close and being a lifeline she can cling to. Tell her that it is just a false alarm, that it’s an anxiety attack and that she will get through it — and that you’re going to help her.
Here are a few things that have worked for my daughter.
If I’m on the other end of a panicked phone call, I always tell my daughter to find a quiet place, if she’s not in one already. Then I start with a couple of really big, slow breaths until she can hear me above all the noise in her head. After that, I conjure up my calmest, most soothing “meditation” voice. I tell her that I’ve got her, that she’s having a panic attack, and she will get through it just like other ones she’s had. I do this because, amid an attack, positivity goes out the window and reminding her that she can take control and that it will pass soon helps get her head in a better place.
Then I walk her through some slow breathing. I tell her to breathe and to find the touch points of where she is — what can she see, hear, smell, or feel. You can’t do much more than talk someone through it if she is on the phone. So take a breath yourself and settle in for a few minutes because it may take a little while until you can calm her down enough to get to the root of the issue. I know how hard it is not to be affected by her anxiety and fear, but if you aren’t the uber calm mom, you will wind her up more. So take a big, conscious step back emotionally if you can.
If you can’t, pass the phone to someone who can.
Since Kylie is a teenager and has been through several anxiety attacks, usually that’s all it takes to get her settled enough to go on with her day. When she was younger, it took us both longer to cope; and there were times I would have to pick her up. When you’re physically together, calming her down is easier and quicker, depending on the severity of the attack, of course.
This is what I do: I meet her where she is. So if she’s lying on the floor of the bathroom, I lie down next to her. I tell her softly that it’s OK, that whatever it is, I’ve got her. I put my arms around her, or, if I can’t do that, I hold her hand or touch her back, whatever I can do to ground her again. I tell her to look at me so she has something calm to focus on, to bring her back to the moment and space where she is. I hold on, tell her to breathe with me, to match my rhythm of breath.
When you slow your breath to match someone else’s, your nervous system resets. When we are hugging or close enough, I tell her to feel my heartbeat, to concentrate on that. Sometimes I hug her until I feel her give in, to relax into me. Lean into a hug like that and she’ll let go; she will unclench her straining, tense shoulders and feel them slide back down away from her ears. Her body and breath will attune to yours. Like magic.
Again, make sure you can be the source of calm. I remember one time in Yosemite when Kylie got upset. Something had bitten her, a lump was forming, and she was in pain. She started crying. I probably reacted by saying she’d be fine, which didn’t help her at all. As the pain and the lump grew, so did a panic attack. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath.
What did I do? I took on her anxiety and started panicking myself. I wasn’t the calm, meditation-voiced mom I needed to be. In fact, I had to step away and ask my sister to take over. Not my best parenting moment, but it was the right decision given my lack of serenity. I wasn’t the person to help her right then.
Luckily my sister found her soothing, meditation voice and we all lived to tell the tale.
Each child is different, so it is best to have a toolbox of anti-anxiety techniques. Here are a few ideas to try. When you find something that works, keep it and use it. The routine, pattern, and regular response can be calming in itself.
- Stay with her and keep calm.
- Move her to a quiet place.
- Breathe with her, slowly.
- Speak in short, simple sentences.
- Be predictable. Avoid surprises.
- Have her notice something she sees or smells.
- Try distracting her with music
Have her look at you and say a few comforting things:
- “You can get through this.”
- “I am proud of you. Good job.”
- “Tell me what you need now.”
- “Concentrate on your breathing. Stay in the present.”
- “What you are feeling is scary, but it is not dangerous.”
- “You’ve got this and I’m with you.”
A word of caution: The worst part about a panic attack isn’t always the panic attack itself. Sometimes, it is the fear that goes along it, the worry about having another panic attack. She may feel exposed and vulnerable and may start to avoid activities that she feels will trigger another attack. Unfortunately, this can often include school or extracurricular activities. You may hear the term “homeschool” come out of her mouth. I did.
Let her know that this is how anxiety works. Explain that panic wants you to avoid things, but the more you avoid, the worse the panic grows. The best way to defeat the panic is to face it head on and continue with your life, as hard as that can be.
It does get easier — for both of you.