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November 3, 2022
December 13, 2023

How to Calm Anxiety Attacks in Children: Causes, Symptoms, and Effective Strategies for Parents

Experiencing an anxiety attack can be an incredibly frightening event — especially for the first time, as is often the case for children — however, learning how to calm an anxiety attack can help reduce the frequency and severity of these events. 

An anxiety attack occurs when your child experiences an overwhelming amount of anxiety or stress. While these episodes may be linked to particular triggers, like ongoing strain or a traumatic event, they can also have no obvious cause. These attacks might cause heart palpitations, trouble breathing, nausea, or restlessness. Because the term “anxiety attack” is not an officially recognized clinical term, it can refer to a wide range of experiences, from ongoing, long-term anxiety to a full panic attack. (A panic attack does have a specific clinical definition, which we’ll get to later.) 

Experiencing an anxiety attack can be an incredibly frightening event — especially for the first time, as is often the case for children — however, learning how to calm an anxiety attack can help reduce the frequency and severity of these events. 

What Is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attack is a blanket term used colloquially for an intense episode of overwhelming fear and distress. Anxiety attacks can strike suddenly, with no obvious trigger, and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. Because anxiety attacks are not officially recognized with a clinical definition, the term may be used to refer to any intense and extended period of distress. In children, these attacks may manifest by visible distress, excessive crying, or clinginess.

You may also hear the expression “anxiety attack” when someone is actually referring to a panic attack. Because frequent panic attacks may indicate panic disorder — a mental health condition that is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — there are specific criteria that indicate whether your child’s anxious episode is, in fact, a panic attack. However, just because your child does not meet the clinical definition of a panic attack, does not mean their anxiety attack isn’t incredibly distressing.

The DSM defines panic attacks as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort,” which comes on quickly and reaches an apex of panic within just a few minutes. Your child also must exhibit at least four of the following physical symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath of feelings of being smothered
  • Feeling as if they are being choked
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, or light-headedness
  • Feelings of unreality, or of being detached from themself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chills or the feeling of heat

Many people with anxiety experience neither panic nor anxiety attacks — your child may even be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, like generalized anxiety disorder, without a single period of intense, heightened anxiety. However, if your child is prone to anxiety, stress, or worrying, it’s important to work with them to develop healthy coping mechanisms and to recognize the signs and symptoms of panic or acute anxiety attacks. This may reduce the intensity or frequency of these events should they occur.

Anxiety attacks can profoundly impact mental health. In one study, participants aged 15 through 18 interpreted the intense physical symptoms of a panic attack as evidence they were “out of control, going crazy or potentially dying.” Researchers specifically identified three negative outcomes associated with panic attacks:

  • Avoiding friends or social activities
  • Decreased sense of personal control
  • Feeling disconnected from family and friends

Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks in Children

Children often struggle to recognize physical distress as a symptom of anxiety or panic — however, quick intervention can be a key to reducing the severity and length of an attack. 

Parents can keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  • Sudden and intense fear
  • Excessive worry about a situation or event, including struggling to calm themself after the situation occurs
  • Reassurance seeking
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sudden stomach aches
  • Avoiding activities or places 
  • Teariness or irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Complaining about physical pain or discomfort with no associated medical cause

If you notice these signs, it might indicate that your child is experiencing a panic or anxiety attack. However, some of these symptoms — particularly the physical manifestations, like heart palpitations or stomach aches —could also indicate a medical concern. Don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s pediatrician, who can also refer you to a therapist or psychiatrist after ruling out other medical causes. 

What Causes Anxiety Attacks in Children?

While panic and anxiety attacks may appear to have no obvious cause, you can often find a triggering event or situation if you look closely. Anything that increases anxiety may lead to an anxiety attack — including social dynamics at school, family changes or conflict, or high academic expectations. Healthy coping mechanisms both reduce the severity of symptoms and manage the impacts of long-term anxiety. 

One common trigger for anxiety attacks is a traumatic experience, such as an accident or abuse. Ongoing stressors like divorce, death of a family member, moving, or a chronic health issue can also increase a child’s propensity toward anxiety. Identifying and helping to mitigate the effects of triggers for your child’s anxiety can help prevent future anxiety attacks, and healthy coping mechanism can help manage them when they occur.

Also, keep in mind that small amounts or occasional bouts of anxiety are perfectly normal, especially when dealing with long-term stress, and doesn’t mean that your child has a diagnosable anxiety disorder. However, those who’s anxiety affects day-to-day functioning, and leads to recurring anxiety or panic attacks, can benefit from  treatment. 

How to Calms an Anxiety Attack

In the midst of a panic or anxiety attack, the fear and the physical symptoms may feel unsurmountable. Your child may appear frozen or inconsolable. But it’s important to remember, and to remind your child, that perception isn’t always reality — there are a number of self-help techniques that can either reduce the severity of an attack or prevent another from occurring. Here a a few examples of how to help someone having a panic attack:

Breathing Exercises

If your child is actively experiencing an anxiety attack, start with breathing exercises. You may need to model these for your child to help them understand and prepare them to practice independently if an episode happens at school or at night. 

Effective exercises include:

  • Belly breathing

With one hand on the belly and the other on the chest. Take deep breaths through the nose and release them through the mouth, feeling your stomach rise and fall.

  • Box breathing

Box breathing involves counting your breathing in a four-step — or box — process. Inhale for four seconds, then hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale to a count of four, and then hold the exhale for another four seconds. Help your child repeat this pattern until they feel calmer.

Grounding Techniques

You can also practice physical or mental grounding techniques, which redirect your child’s focus away from the scary, overwhelming emotions that triggered the anxiety attack. 

Here are a few techniques to practice:

  • Using the senses

Engage their senses by having them identify and describe things they can see, touch, hear, or smell in their environment. 

  • Sensory distraction

Utilize sensory objects like stress balls and aromatherapy to help them refocus.

If you’re looking to better understand how to help with anxiety attacks and prevent future anxiety, try integrating calming strategies into your child’s daily routine. For example, mindfulness can help provide a sense of grounding and help children better recognize their emotional state. With more awareness about their emotions and ways of controlling them, children may even be able to identify and prevent an anxiety attack before it starts. Yoga or progressive muscle relaxation, which involves relaxing every muscle group one by one, can also help soothe the nervous system. Like mindfulness, relaxation techniques can decrease overall anxiety.

In addition to these coping mechanisms, adding external support can help your child manage their anxiety. Working with a mental health professional can help unpack the triggers behind attacks and develop personalized strategies to address rising anxiety and its origins. And don’t forget to incorporate other trusted adults, such as teachers, into the process. They can provide support and reassurance when your child is in their care.

Experiencing a panic or anxiety attack can be terrifying, especially for a child. Regardless of whether the experience fits into the DSM’s definition of a panic attack, these heightened, visceral experiences can cause immense distress. It can be heartbreaking to watch your child struggle with these emotions, but you can also learn how to help someone having a panic attack and help them find relief. Utilizing self-help calming techniques — like breathwork and grounding — can also shorten the length of an attack. 

If you need further support or assistance in helping a child understand how to stop an anxiety attack, don’t hesitate to reach out for a free consultation from a licensed Handspring Health therapist today. 

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