How to Deal With Panic Attacks As a Child or Teenager
Do you get anxious? Do you ever feel trapped and just want to run, but you can’t? You might be having a panic attack. Panic attacks are bursts fear that usually include trouble breathing, shaking, sweating, or feeling like you’re choking. Panic attacks are scary and they can happen anywhere, such as while you are spending time with friends, working on homework, or sitting in class at school. But by learning to calm yourself in an attack, making changes to your diet and activity level, and seeking professional help, you can take back control.
Learn the signs. The sooner you recognize the signs of an attack, the better chance you have of controlling it. Panic attacks can come on suddenly through “triggers,” but have clear patterns.
People who get panic attacks usually feel a sense of fear, danger, doom, or loss of control. You may feel detached – that is, like things around you aren’t real.
How do you feel right before an attack? This can tip you off: rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, trouble breathing, and even chills or dizziness.
For many people, panic disorder comes along with other fears, like being in closed spaces (called “claustrophobia”).
Stay put. You might get an attack from fear of a closed space, reliving a scary event, or seeing a certain person. These can be “triggers.” Your first reaction is to flee. But in most cases, it’s better to stay where you are until the attack passes.
Unless it is unsafe, stay put while the attack occurs. If you’re in a car, try to have the driver pull over and stop.
Trying to run from your triggers can lead to what’s called “phobic avoidance,” which can be really harmful.
People who have lots of attacks often get something called “agoraphobia.” Doctors used to think this was a fear of public places. But we now know it occurs when people avoid being in public from fear of an attack or being embarrassed.
Focus on something else. Instead of running, remind yourself that your fear will pass. Focus on a non-threatening or visible object, for example, like items in a shop window or the moving hands on a clock until you feel the panic subside.
If you can, recite something in your head like a favorite poem, a mantra, or the times-tables. This will distract you from what triggered the attack in the first place.
You can also try to imagine something calm, like a place or situation that makes you peaceful, relaxed, and positive. It could be your grandma’s house or by the seaside.
Slow your breathing. Try to focus on your breathing, as well. You’ll take short and shallow breaths in a panic, which can actually make your feelings of anxiety worse. Slow your breaths; breathe deeply.
Inhale slowly to the count of four and then exhale. This will help you relax your mind and body.
Practice deep, slow breathing when you are relaxed to get used to it.
Challenge your fear – but don’t fight the attack. Tell yourself that the panic is temporary. Try to figure out what triggered you and remind yourself that your fear is not real and will pass. Don’t let it get the best of you.
Don’t try to resist the feeling of anxiety. Resisting and failing might only increase your panic.
Tell yourself that what you are feeling is uncomfortable, but won’t hurt you.
Do things to relax. If you suffer from panic attacks, it can be hard to come down and feel at ease. Try to learn ways to relax to relieve the tension. These may also help you keep your cool when actually having an attack.
Massage, yoga, aromatherapy, or pilates can relieve physical tension and put you at ease.
For younger kids, do a calm activity you like. Paint, color, play outside, or read.
You might even try different kinds of meditation. The slow, regular breathing and inner focus are especially helpful.
Relax at least one or two times per day with whichever technique you like. Avoid practicing right after or before a meal, as hunger and fullness can distract you.
Get moving. Add exercise to your life, as well, especially aerobic kinds. This sort of exercise will cause your brain to release a hormone called serotonin, which will improve your wellbeing and mood.
Aerobic exercise boosts your heart-rate and breathing and includes things like running, fast walking, biking, and swimming. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.
Add some strength training to your routine, as well, working major muscle groups once or twice a week.
Get enough sleep. Did you know that sleep loss can make you more anxious? Lack of sleep can leave you feeling irritable, grumpy, or on edge. Some research shows that enough of it every day, on the other hand, may help lessen anxiety disorders.
Get enough rest! Kids from 3 to 13 years old need about 9 to 11 hours of sleep every night. Teens need 8.5 to 9 hours.
Cut out the caffeine, too. Try to avoid things like cola and coffee if you’re having panic attacks. Not only will these things disrupt your sleep, but they’ll increase your stress levels.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs. Drinking and smoking can be really harmful for kids and teens. It can be even more harmful when you have panic attacks. These substances are mood-altering, meaning they change the way your feel and the way your brain works – and not for the better.
It’s best to stay away from drugs entirely. People with anxiety disorders are 2-3 times more likely than others to develop a drug abuse problem.
Alcohol and drugs will not improve the way you feel. In fact, they can make anxiety and panic attacks worse.
Talk to a counselor or therapist. If your fear and anxiety are getting out of control, you probably need help. One place to start is a counselor. Talking to someone – a professional – will help you learn more about what is making you panic, why, and how to reduce and control your symptoms.
Try your school. Many schools have counselors on staff to help students get through problems just like this. Ask to make an appointment.
Talk to a trusted adult. Let an adult that you trust like a parent, teacher, close relative, or school worker know what is going on. They can help you look in your area for licensed social worker, therapist, or doctor who can help.
A therapist might start you on a program of something called “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” or CBT. You’ll have regular sessions, work to identify what’s behind the attacks, and get rid of your fears and anxieties. CBT will also teach you ways to deal with future attacks.
Let your friends know. Your friends may not realize that you’re struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. They may not know what is going on, if or when you get an attack. Let them know – good friends will try to understand and help.
Friends can support you and help you through this tough time. If you feel comfortable (and you might not), you might let your other peers at school or work know what’s going on, too.
Having friends who know about your condition will help if you have an attack, as well. They can reassure you, calm you, and be there until you improve.
Join a support group. You might also join a peer support group. There are lots of people like you who have problems with anxiety. It sometimes helps to see that you’re not alone and learn how to manage the condition from each other.
See whether there are local groups where you live. In the Britain there are charity organizations like Anxiety UK that focus on anxiety-related issues, for instance.
Support groups often have face-to-face meetings, where you’ll be able to talk about your problems in person. Other times, they can offer guidance in writing or over the phone.
Seek medical advice. You might also need to talk to a medical doctor, either along with or apart from therapy. Your doctor will be able to look at your case and give you options for other treatment. This might include anti-anxiety meds or anti-depressants.
The doctor might give you “selective serotonin uptake inhibitors” (SSRIs), for example. These are anti-depressants like Prozac and Zoloft that can ease panic attacks.
You could also be prescribed “serotonin and norepinephrine uptake inhibitors” (SNRIs) or benzodiazepine. The first are anti-depressants like SSRIs. The second are depressants like Xanax. These last ones can be habit-forming and are usually only for short-term use or emergencies.
All meds can have side-effects. Talk to a doctor and only take medication that is prescribed for you.
Keep in mind that SSRI anti-depressants carry a black box warning because they can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in teens and young adults up to the age of 25. Discuss the risks with your doctor before you decide to take an SSRI anti-depressant.