Panic Attacks – Don’t Panic! Do These 4 Things Instead!

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It seems like more and more children and adolescents are reaching out to me because they are experiencing strong and frequent panic attacks.  The unfortunate thing is that once children have one panic attack, they become extremely fearful that they will have another one.  In essence, they become anxious about being anxious.  As a result, the panic attacks become much more intense due to the fear and anxiety of having one.  Panic attacks occur for a variety of reasons and triggers can be different from person to person.  Regardless, there are a few things to consider if you or your loved one are trying to manage a panic attack.

Panic attacks won’t kill you.

As uncomfortable as they may be, you or your loved one will not die from having a panic attack.  The symptoms are very similar to going through an episode of fight or flight.  This is because your body believes that it is in danger.  As a result, adrenaline floods your body causing extreme physiological symptoms.  It may be difficult to breath, your heart rate can increase significantly, you may experience dizziness or nausea, and you may even break out into a cold sweat.  And these are just the physiological symptoms of a panic attack.  You may also find your thoughts become negative, toxic and racing, and in some instances, it may be difficult for you to stop crying.  However, do not panic!  There are some really helpful strategies to follow in order to calm yourself or your child down. These 4 strategies can help prevent a panic attack from happening if you are able to recognize the warning signs.  Otherwise, they can at least limit the amount of time the panic attack lasts.

  1. Regain control of your breathing.

Take slow and deep breaths.  When you are experiencing a panic attack, it is easy to lose control of your breathing.  As a result, the panic attack can worsen which will also make it last longer.  If you are having a difficult time slowing your breathing down, remove yourself from a crowd if others are around, limit yourself to one other support person if necessary, and try a mindfulness activity such as mindful coloring, meditation, or other grounding exercises.  Regaining control of your breathing can also help to slow your heart rate back down.  For more mindful techniques, you can read through my blog, Anxiety and the Here and Now.

2. Redirect yourself

If you or your child are having a difficult time regaining control of your breathing and slowing your heart rate down due to a panic attack, it may be helpful to focus your mind on something else.  If your child is the one experiencing the panic attack, engage them in a conversation that has nothing to do with the panic attack.  Try to focus the conversation on something they enjoy or are looking forward to such as an upcoming vacation or a hobby they are into.  If redirecting through conversation isn’t working, playing a game or doing another activity can help to district you or your child from the panic attack.  Remember, the goal is to manage the physiological and psychological symptoms that are occurring from the panic attack and redirecting you or your child can help accomplish this.

3. Lower your body temperature.

When people are going through a panic attack, lowering your body temperature can help control some of the symptoms (ie: dizziness, racing heartbeat, etc.).  Placing a cold compress on your forehead or having a cold drink of water can do the trick.  Having a drink of water can also help flush some of the chemicals that are released during a panic attack out of your body.  If you are experiencing a panic attack while you are outside on a hot day, it can be helpful to find a shaded area or to find a place indoors with air conditioning.

4. Reframe your thoughts

Typically, a panic attack occurs because your body believes it is in danger.  This can be triggered due to toxic and irrational thoughts.  For example, if your child suddenly experiences a panic attack as they are boarding an airplane due to a fear that it is going to crash, it can be helpful to counter, confront, and question these thoughts.  “The chances of a plane crash are very slim, it is very safe to fly, and I’m going to focus my attention on something else during the flight” are three possible thoughts that can help lead to a quieter, less anxious mind.

If none of these strategies work for you or your child, try to find a safe place to go to and ride the panic attack out.  Remember, you or your child will not die from a panic attack.  However, if it turns into a frequent occurrence and impacts your or your child’s ability to function on a day to day basis, please reach out to a therapist for help.

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