Understanding and effectively addressing panic attacks in children is crucial for their well-being and mental health. As parents, caregivers, or educators, it is essential to recognize the signs of panic attacks in children and be equipped with strategies to support and assist them during these distressing episodes. The increasing prevalence of panic attacks in children has become a concerning issue in recent years. Numerous studies have shed light on this alarming trend, revealing a rise in the occurrence of panic attacks among the younger population. By fostering a nurturing environment and implementing appropriate coping mechanisms, we can help alleviate their symptoms and promote their emotional resilience. (Also read: Is your parenting style harming your kid's mental health? )
"Panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of extreme anxiety or fear mimicking a life-threatening emergency that peaks within minutes, even though there is no actual danger present, that typically lasts for a relatively short period. During a panic attack, individuals experience a surge of intense physical and psychological symptoms that can be overwhelming and distressing. The expression and manifestation of symptoms in children are different from adults. For example, children often do not understand what they are going through, so they might complain of stomach ache, headache, dizziness etc rather than express it as fear," says Dr Ruhi Satija, Consultant Psychiatrist, Therapist, Mind Transformation Mentor Cloudnine Hospital, Mumbai.
Signs of panic attack in children
Here are common signs of panic attacks in children by Dr. Ruhi Satija, Consultant Psychiatrist, Therapist, Mind Transformation Mentor Cloudnine Hospital, Mumbai
- Intense fear or discomfort: A child experiencing a panic attack may exhibit extreme fear or a sense of impending doom. They may seem out of control.
- Increased breathing rate leading to a feeling of a pounding chest, shortness of breath or feeling smothered, and chest pain or discomfort.
- Some children may experience gastrointestinal symptoms during a panic attack, such as stomach pain, nausea, or a "butterflies in the stomach" sensation.
- Tingling or numbness in their hands, feet, or other parts of their body during a panic attack. This is often caused by hyperventilation.
- A child experiencing a panic attack may express a fear of losing control, going crazy, or dying.
- Sweating or chills: Excessive sweating or sudden chills are common physical manifestations of panic attacks. A child may feel hot and sweaty or experience cold, clammy skin.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness: A child may feel dizzy, unsteady, or light-headed or may lose balance or faint, during a panic attack.
- Shaking or trembling of the hands, legs, or entire body can occur during a panic attack
- Abrupt shifts in mood and behaviour.
- Regular expressions of non-specific physical discomfort.
- Disruptions in sleep patterns and alterations in appetite.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours, such as avoiding locations or situations associated with past panic attacks.
- Increased dependency on parents, exhibiting reluctance to attend school.
Ways to help them:
“It is important that these issues are recognised early and treated properly as long-term consequences can be various mental health disorders like depression, personality disorders etc, Start with communicating openly and helping children recognize the symptoms and understand that no matter how uncomfortable they feel, panic attacks do not cause any permanent damage to physical health,” says Dr. Ruhi.
Learn techniques such as:
- Breathing techniques example, square breathing, 2:4 breathing, bubble breathing
- Grounding techniques such as the 54321 technique
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Sensory soothing like holding a weighted blanket might be comforting.
- Thought Stopping: Teach the child to recognize and challenge negative or anxious thoughts during a panic attack. When they notice a negative thought arising, encourage them to mentally shout "Stop!" and replace it with a more positive or realistic thought. This technique can help interrupt the cycle of anxious thinking.
- Supportive presence, it is important that the adult trying to help first calms themselves. and learns these techniques to help assist the children.
- And lastly but most importantly, seeking professional help from a psychiatrist for proper evaluation and if required, therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. will help resolve the issue.