She’s trembling, she can’t breathe, and she’s hyperventilating; seemingly 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, panic attacks can happen at any time – even during sleep. And they can be super scary –for both the person having it and the one witnessing it. When it’s your child who is out of control like that, it’s especially 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% of people with ADHD have a coexisting condition; and for about 50% of adults and 30% of children with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. Although each condition has unique symptoms, sometimes they mirror each other, which can make it difficult to know whether you have ADHD, anxiety or both. I can tell you that it was truly agonizing to see Kylie in the throes of an anxiety attack. It still is, but they are rare and short now, thanks both to her medicine and to us figuring out the best way to move her through an attack once it starts.
First of all, it’s critical that you accept the attack as real. The dizziness, sweating, chest pain, racing heart—all of it is real. Basically 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 even that she’s OK, because she definitely isn’t feeling anywhere near OK. In fact she’s not able to think clearly, her brain is also affected–by racing thoughts, excessive worry and this feeling of impending doom. So what can you do? Start by holding her close and being a lifeline she can cling to and 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 really worked for my daughter.
Over the phone
First of all, if I’m on the other end of a panicked phone call, I always tell her 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 most calm and soothing “meditation” voice. You know, the one that sounds like it’s melting? 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 in the midst of an attack, all 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 is she, what can she see, hear, smell, or feel. You can’t do much more than talk someone through it if it’s via 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. Trust me, I know how hard it is not to just suck her anxiety, fear and panic into yourself and your own tone, but if you aren’t the uber calm mom, you will just 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. Seriously.
Since Kylie is a teenager and has been through these, often 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 go pick her up. When you’re physically together, calming her down is a bit easier and a bit quicker, depending on the severity of the issue of course.
This is what I do: I meet her where she is. So if that’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 physically do to touch her, 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 just 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 whole nervous system resets. When we are hugging or close enough I tell her to feel my heartbeat, to concentrate on that. Sometimes I just hug her until I can 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. Simply put, her body and breath will attune to yours. Like magic.
Again, make sure you can be that source of calm. I remember one time in Yosemite when Kylie became upset. She started crying, something had bitten her, a lump was forming and she was in pain. I probably reacted by saying she’d be fine –which helped her not at all. So then as the pain and the lump grew, so did a panic attack. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. So what did I do? I took on her anxiety and started ratcheting up the crazy. I was nowhere near the calm, meditation-voiced mom I needed to be. In fact, I had to step away and ask my sister to take over. Perhaps not my best parenting moment, but it was the right decision given my immediate and total lack of serenity. I simply 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.
A Few Quick, Effective Coping Tools
Because kids are different, different techniques can help. Here are a few ideas to try. When you find something that works, keep it and use it. That 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 such as:
- “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 panic attacks isn’t always the panic attack themselves. 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 even hear the term “homeschool” come out of her mouth. I know I did.
Try not to feed into that cycle. 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 normal, as hard as that can be.
It does get easier. For both of you.
Dana Baker is a parent and teen coach, a writer and a not-so-perfect mom of two great kids. She offers a non judgmental ear and real life observations and advice that help you navigate the up, the downs and the downright uglies of parenting. Her insightful ness comes with a good dose of humor and the simple recognition that no matter how hard we may try, none of us is a perfect parent.