When my now 18-year-old daughter was in the first grade, her teacher called me to say, “Your daughter’s having a panic attack about riding the bus home.” I can still picture where I was and how I felt: a little lost. Even as a professional, when it’s your own child, the urge to help is so strong that it can leave you feeling helpless. I wondered how I could best support her.
The most recent research from the National Institute of Mental Health says that only about 2.3 percent of adolescents were diagnosed with panic disorder. Experiencing a panic attack, however, is common. Whether the attacks start because of school, at school, or if they have nothing to do with school, educating ourselves about the problem and the solutions is essential.
Part of overcoming panic attacks is learning about what defines one. A panic attack is when we encounter the feelings and experience of panic, but there’s no danger. The physical symptoms represent the brain’s “fight, flight or freeze” response. The body fills with adrenaline, causing intense physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling and shaking, shortness of breath, and feeling dizzy, light-headed or faint. You can experience numbness and tingling sensations, chills or hot flashes, feelings of unreality or as if you’re detached from your body, thoughts of losing control or going crazy, and thoughts of dying. Suicidal thoughts might even occur. The attacks only last 10-30 minutes.
The number one thing to remember — and to remind our children of — is that as horribly uncomfortable as these symptoms are, panic attacks are not dangerous.
When your child has a panic attack, you want to respond instead of react. Reacting often is driven by emotion (and is more impulsive), while responding is driven by thoughtful action. Because parents are an essential part of a child’s treatment team, learning how to respond allows us to be the calming anchor our children need.
For example, what may seem intuitive, like letting my daughter avoid the bus, actually reinforces her worry that the bus is dangerous. My job as a parent was to be gentle, yet firm, that while she was feeling uncomfortable about doing it, I believed she could handle more than she thought she could. No matter how much she cried or vomited, she knew she was riding the bus home after school. When she got home, she was rewarded for stepping out of her comfort zone and being brave.
Overcoming panic attacks is absolutely possible under the guidance of a trusted cognitive behavior therapist. Only with personalized treatment can a correct diagnosis be made and an appropriate treatment plan devised.
Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist in Shaker Heights. A mother of three herself, Joanna combines years of everyday parenting experience with professional training in the areas of anxiety; changing family dynamics, such as divorce; and obsessive-compulsive and eating disorders all in an effort to support, coach and empower parents of behaviorally challenging kids (which is pretty much all of them, right?). Joanna earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York and a master’s degree from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. joannahardis.com