How to help when your child is having a panic attackWritten by Janyre Tromp
What's inside this article
It was the day after spring break. My daughter was 12 and had been experiencing increasing abdominal pain for six months. No one could tell us what it was. But it was preventing her from making it through an entire day of school let alone through swim practice. So when I got the call from school, I assumed it was just another day. But it wasn’t. This was the beginning of our struggles with anxiety attacks. From that point forward, I started to learn how to help someone having an anxiety attack.
My girl was sick. Really sick. The next six months were a blur of IVs and painful blood draws, intensive care units, doctors and hospitals, and bizarre tests that left my entire family reeling and my girl and I with medical PTSD.
The smell of isopropyl alcohol makes my heart race. And the thought of an IV makes me clench my teeth and battle a full‐on anxiety attack. And that’s just me. Ever since her days in the hospital, anxiety attacks have come for my daughter too. It’s almost worse when they come for her instead of me.
If you can relate, the good news is there are things we can do to help our children with anxiety attacks. Here are just a few I’ve picked up in the last few years.
Get professional help
Professionals are highly trained and have an array of tools. Going to those experts isn’t a weakness. It takes strength to ask for help. It takes strength to go to a counsellor to deal with underlying causes. And it takes wisdom to know that sometimes medication is the best option.
Don’t judge or nag
Never tell someone having an anxiety attack that there’s nothing to be anxious about. It’s a dismissive and disrespectful comment. More than likely, your child experiencing the anxiety attack knows in their rational conscious mind that there isn’t any immediate threat. But that doesn’t stop the unconscious mind from reacting to past trauma and the body’s stress chemicals coursing through them.
When you say, “You shouldn’t be anxious” it loads on guilt and shame, which only makes things worse.
Give them tools to help with anxiety attacks
Instead of loading on guilt, give your child tools before they’re in flight or fight mode. Here are a few that my daughter and I often use:
Growing up, my mom was forever telling me to take a deep breath. Back then I thought it was just something moms said to distract their offspring. But it turns out that deep, diaphragmatic breathing is scientifically proven to release calming endorphins.
It basically tells your brain that everything is cool. 4‐7‐8 breathing is known as a natural tranquilizer for the brain. Basically you breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold it for seven, and breathe out of your mouth for eight seconds. And then repeat it three or four times. It’s like magic . . . almost.
For my daughter and I, if I see signs of an anxiety attack coming, I start doing 4‐7‐8 breathing myself and she tracks in with me. I don’t always even have to say anything.
This technique is especially helpful for when your child feels an anxiety attack coming. It helps ground your child in the safety of the present when your subconscious mind is trying to send you into flight or fight. Basically you count five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
If your loved one is starting to have an attack, ask them, “What are five things you see?” and then move from there.
Not only does walking stimulate those feel‐good endorphins, but it also was the basis for the creation of one of the most effective modern techniques to help anxiety and PTSD – EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). Hang in there with me for a second while I blow your mind just a little.
EMDR involves revisiting painful memories at a mental distance while using bilateral stimulation (stimulating one side of the body and then the other and back again) to help the sufferer in and out of the memory. As we walk – alternating between our left and right feet – we are, in essence, performing bilateral stimulation, the basis of EMDR. If EMDR is something you would like to pursue with your child, consult a professional.
Whether it’s listening to a soothing song or ocean sounds, music and comforting sounds actually reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Both my daughter and I use the song “Oceanic Feeling” from the album Brainspotting: BioLateral Sound Healing. Put it on repeat and sleep on it.
Visualize a safe place
This is a dreamy spot you create where you can let your mind drift because it’s inherently safe. Typically you don’t want to use a real place as reality has baggage.
My safe place is a cottage on a sand dune filled with sea glass and wind chimes. I can hear the surf rolling and the seagulls calling. I can even smell the warmth of the sunshine on the sand, feel the sharp edges of dune grass on my fingers. Although she hasn’t told me much, my daughter’s is much the same.
This one is particularly important to create before experiencing an attack. Have your loved one close their eyes. Then ask them to imagine a place they would love to be. Maybe it’s a chateau on top of a mountain, a cabin in the woods, a condo in the desert. Wherever it is, it’s safe, calm, and you have complete access and control. It’s a place where you can temporarily retreat to let your conscious, more logical mind catch up with your automatic responses. Practice seeing the safe place even when there’s nothing to panic about. Make it as real as possible – sights, sounds, smells, etc.
Give your child examples and stories of success
Neuroscience shows that if you read or hear a story, it not only activates the learning centre of the brain, but also the experience side of the brain. That means if you give your loved one stories about people overcoming anxiety attacks, panic attacks, PTSD and depression, their brain experiences overcoming their struggles.
When a brain rehearses something, it rewrites the patterns of the unconscious mind. Since panic attacks are often an unconscious reaction, anything we can do to tell the brain it can overcome is a good thing. So tell them about my kiddo who almost died, struggles with anxiety attacks, but breathed her way through it to become an elite swimmer. For teens, have them read stories like my book Shadows in the Mind’s Eye or Murder at the Flamingo (by Rachel McMillan) where the heroes overcome their panic and anxiety. Ultimately help them see that peace is possible.
Realize that everyone is different
One of the most important things is to recognize that everyone is different. I now recognize the rapid breathing and withdrawal in my daughter that signal an oncoming anxiety attack and can remind her to take a deep breath. That works for us. But it might not work for you and your loved one. Touch might help or hinder. But the fact is that your loved one can use your help . . . you just have to be willing to find what is actually helpful.
Final thoughts on how to help your child with an anxiety attack
Of course, this list is far from exhaustive, but it can help open the doors to recovery as you and your children step into the world of mental health. Anxiety attacks feel awful in the moment, so having conversations beforehand to help cope with them can be extremely beneficial. Ultimately, we know God is our true comforter in the midst of hardship. If you or your child is experiencing anxiety attacks or panic attacks, run to the Father and lay down your burdens. Though you may continue to battle mental health issues, the Lord is listening to every prayer and every cry of your heart.
Janyre Tromp (pronounced Jan-ear) is a historical suspense novelist who loves spinning tales that, at their core, hunt for beauty, even when it isn’t pretty. She’s the author of Shadows in the Mind’s Eye and coauthor of It’s a Wonderful Christmas. A firm believer in the power of an entertaining story, Tromp is also a book editor and published children’s book author. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband, two kids, two crazy cats, and a slightly eccentric Shetland Sheepdog. You can find her on Facebook (@JaynreTromp), Instagram (@JanyreTromp), Twitter (@JanyreTromp) and at her website, JanyreTromp.com where you can download a free copy of her novella, Wide Open.
© 2022 Janyre Tromp. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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