Fear gripped my body. My back was glued to the sandstone. A few hundred feet below me was Lake Powell, and its waves crashed up against the side of the smooth slippery rock. My fear of heights triggered a panic attack. “I am going to die.”

Perhaps your child has an extreme fear or phobia like me. These can precipitate a panic attack. These moments are frightening for the observer and distressing and debilitating for the individual.

As I was frozen with terror, God reminded me of ways to cope. Positive self-talk and praying without ceasing gave me the ability to manage the moment. My palms, cemented to the rock, released and I crab walked down the side of the rock one hand, one foot at a time.

“God is with me, so I can do this,” was my prayer and mantra until I made it to the safety of the boat. I had no strength or ability to call out for help, I only had enough power to inch my way down the rock. My family was totally oblivious to the intense fear that gripped my body and mind.

I was experiencing a panic attack.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks and anxiety are often confused. Similarly, they overlap and are both related to fear. Yet, those who experience anxiety are more susceptible to a panic attack.

Anxiety stems from worry or apprehension. In addition, anxiety is persistent and experienced repeatedly over long stretches of time. Most of the time, anxiety is less intense than a panic attack. Mental symptoms like difficulty concentrating, fatigue, increased startle response, irritability, muscle tension and restlessness differentiate anxiety from a panic attack. Anxiety builds gradually. However, panic attacks arrive differently.

For example, they are typically situational, physically debilitating, sudden and intense. It originates from extreme fear. They appear abruptly and they are temporary and tend to last around 10 to 20 minutes. A panic attack may include chest pain, shaking, sweating, light-headedness, fainting, nausea, hot flashes, numbness, chills, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, a fear of dying or losing control and feelings of disconnectedness from self or surroundings.

Why do they occur?

Specific situations, previous experiences, brain chemistry, family history, extreme stress and temperament are various factors that altogether play a part in a person being susceptible to a panic attack.

During a panic attack, the mind is not reasonable or logical. For example, if my kids or husband, who were all climbing on the rock like mountain goats, attempted to tell me, “You are fine. Don’t worry. It’s all in your head,” I would have felt even more alone in my fear. Then, those comments would have added to my distress. I needed help, not reason.

What can a parent do if a child experiences a panic attack?

Here are ten ways a parent can help equip a child who experiences a panic attack:1

  1. Help your child identify the thoughts that create fear and anxiety and replace those thoughts with helpful, positive thoughts.
  2. Train your child in deep breathing exercises. Inhale through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth.
  3. Practice grounding exercises, use your senses to notice the world around you.
  4. Try tensing and relaxing your muscles.
  5. Try to visualize something that is calming or relaxing.
  6. Work on positive self-talk.
  7. Desensitize the fear through a technique called flooding. Put yourself into a similar situation over and over again. (Be careful with this. Be sure your child is able and willing to do this.)
  8. Prayer. Teach your child God is with them. They are not alone.
  9. Seek professional help. Psychotherapy like cognitive behavioural therapy may be in
  10. Medication may be prescribed by your doctor.

Coping mechanisms, like those listed above, can help get your child through the moment. If your child has experienced a panic attack, make a mental note of the cause. Finally, train your child how to utilize the coping mechanisms.

Final thoughts on how to help your child cope with panic attacks

We cannot prevent a panic attack or talk our loved one out of one. Reason and logic only create more angst in the situation. Also, we can equip them and empower them by teaching them coping skills.

God can use us to help our kids navigate the rough and frightening waters of a panic attack.

Related reading

Lori Wildenberg is the mom of a daughter who has wrestled with depression and is passionate about helping parents help their children navigate a messy life. Lori is a licensed parent and family educator, national speaker and an author/co-author of six parenting books. For more information go to LoriWildenberg.com.

1. "10 Points to Help With Panic Attacks" used by permission and adapted from Messy Hope: Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation. (Birmingham: New Hope Publishers, 2021).

© 2022 Lori Wildenberg. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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