It always starts the same way: a hot flash from my head to my toes. If I can react quickly enough — close my eyes and focus on taking deep breaths — I am usually in the clear. But if my mind grasps onto anything — Did my heart just skip a beat? Are my palms sweaty? Does that lump in my throat mean I soon won’t be able to breathe? — it’s inevitable: I’m having a panic attack.
Before I became a mother, I could weather a panic attack anytime, anywhere; I’ve had them for well over a decade and learned long ago that I just have to buckle up for the ride. But now that I have a child (more specifically, a toddler that is always running and jumping and dancing and asking to be played with), there’s a good chance that ride includes having to take care of another human, at a time when I’m struggling to take care of myself.
Having a child forced me to confront a lot of things about myself, including this major realization: I need to allow people to help me. This is why I have a therapist helping me work through childhood trauma and a dietitian helping me create a healthy relationship with food. It’s why I’m finally learning how to set boundaries. And it’s why I’ve started to do something I’ve always tried not to do out of embarrassment: verbalize my anxieties to my husband and friends. I’m learning to do this so I don’t have to face my panic attacks alone. Because I’m not alone: As many as 6 million U.S. adults have panic disorder. Women are twice as likely as men to be affected, and many of them, like me, have a child by their side when the panic sets in.
Will my daughter mirror my anxieties? Will she experience trauma later on because of my panic attacks?
Our children are always watching and learning from us and it’s that knowledge that adds to my panic: Will my daughter mirror my anxieties? Will she experience trauma later on because of my panic attacks? These worries led me to Robert Duff, Ph.D., psychologist and author of the Hardcore Self Help series, who tells me that while I can absolutely explain my panic attacks to my daughter after the fact — especially if she is present for one — it is important to not overinterpret what she sees. “A panic attack is a very internal experience,” Duff points out.
And he’s right. My panic attacks, even the ones that lead to the uncontrollable shaking and chattering teeth generated by my body’s fight-or-flight response, are relatively inconspicuous to everyone but me. I’ve had them in an airport restaurant, in movie theaters, and even while being stitched up during my cesarean section. The only way my husband — or in case of the C-section, my anesthesiologist — even realized what was happening is because I told them. Panic attacks often aren’t like you see in the movies — of course, some people may get blurry vision and have to steady themselves on a counter while gasping for air, and if that is you it is totally OK! — but often, perhaps because it’s so hard for other people to see, it’s a very lonely and isolating experience.
“[Your children] can't feel your heart racing; they can't hear your spiraling thoughts,” reassures Duff. “They might notice that you are out of it, or that you are acting kind of funny,” he says, but they aren’t witnessing anything life-threatening and likely won’t need to call for help or medical intervention. When it comes to your kids’ experience, as well as your own, he says, “it’s important for you to remind yourself that you won't be hurt by the panic and that it will pass soon.”
The ideal way to handle a panic attack as a parent — both in the moment and afterward — varies based on your child’s age. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a NYC-based neuropsychologist, explains if they are under around 10 years of age, you really only have to ensure they are somewhere safe until the attack passes.
For some younger children who are picking up on what’s going on, Duff suggests relating your panic attacks to times when they have a hard time listening because they are having a tantrum. “Most kids can't listen to reason when their body is worked up from being upset,” he explains. “You can tell them the same thing happens to you once in a while, and you need to take a quick break to get your body back under control so that you can think and help them better.”
If your kids are older than 10, Hafeez recommends some calm, open dialogue about how panic attacks aren't going to physically harm you — their parent — and what steps all of you, as a family, can take to work through the panic attack while it’s happening.
Research shows that parents learning to regulate their own emotions also benefits their children; emotional dysregulation habits aren’t passed down to children and parents are better equipped to help their children manage their own feelings by staying mindful and present as a baby cries or during a tantrum, for example. This same mindfulness practice can be used during your own panic attack, helping you to stay present and verbalize your needs to your family.
I think that people who have panic attacks are also likely people who would worry about the perfect way to handle their kids in the event of a panic attack.
The pandemic has been an added beast for those of us experiencing panic attacks: In my case, increasing my anxiety levels, to say the least. But also, for some sufferers, help may be more available during a panic attack thanks to the increase in work-from-home setups. I can now let my husband know I am experiencing a panic attack, and he is able to step away from the computer to take the lead with our daughter while I take a few moments to lie down and regulate my breathing and wait for it to pass.
“I think that people who have panic attacks are also likely people who would worry about the perfect way to handle their kids in the event of a panic attack,” reassures Duff. “You don't have to handle it perfectly.”
If you take anything away from this, let it be that. We don’t have to be perfect (really, we can’t be perfect). There’s no perfect way to have a panic attack. There’s no perfect way to parent. Giving yourself permission to simply do your best? That’s the most perfect thing you can do for yourself — and your kids — as a parent.
Robert Duff, Ph.D., psychologist
Helena J.V. Rutherford, Norah S. Wallace, Heidemarie K. Laurent, and Linda C. Mayes (2015), Emotion Regulation In Parenthood. National Library of Medicine www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465117/