Are panic attacks typical?
Even though our bodies have a natural alarm system that goes off when something is wrong to prepare us to handle emergency situations, having panic attacks is not typical. Usually, when children and adolescents experience panic attacks, their alarm goes off without a real threat or problem.
Panic attacks can be triggered by specific situations, but a lot of times they seem to occur out of the blue. Many children and adolescents describe them as feeling as though a room is closing in on them, as if they can't breathe, or if they are about to die. Panic attacks include:
- Feelings of imminent danger.
- The need to escape.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Shortness of breath or a smothering feeling.
- Feeling of choking.
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Sense of things being unreal.
- Fear of losing control or "going crazy".
- Fear of dying.
- Tingling sensations across the body.
- Chills or hot flushes.
Most children and adolescents who experience one panic attack don't experience more of them. However, for some this experience can be so unsettling that they can start to worry about having new attacks. It may be a cause of concern when such worries lead to the avoidance of places, activities, or situations where they may feel unsafe, as well as to an anxious anticipation that most times increases the chances of new attacks.
When should I be concerned about a student’s panic attacks?
Students who face panic attacks and start fearing new ones, usually develop an intense fear of the physical sensations associated with panic, such as elevated heart rates, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, even when they are not having a panic attack. This apprehension increases their attention to those bodily reactions and the tendency to interpret them as signs of new attacks. This frequent apprehension leads to an increased sense of anxiety that makes children and adolescents more prone to new attacks, maintaining a cycle.
Panic attacks are usually a sign that a student is struggling, so they require attention and support whether they happen once, or recurrently. Early support can prevent the panic cycle to strengthen itself.
What can I do to help a student with panic attacks?
Panic attacks can happen anywhere, including at school. They usually last for about 10-15 minutes, but they can feel like a lifetime. There are a few things teachers may attempt to help a student with panic attacks.
- Help the student to take deep breaths. Teachers may ask students to look in the teacher's eyes and take deep breaths while talking in a soothing voice taking deep breaths in and deep breaths out.
- Act calm. Some students look to teachers for reassurance, so a teacher may remind the student that any bad sensations they are having will pass eventually.
- Help the student to feel safe in the classroom. All children and adolescents benefit from support and a reassuring pat on the back. It gives them a feeling of security, which is important in the context of panic attacks.
- Help the student to distract from anxious thoughts. When students are in the midst of a panic attack, they tend to be too focused on their scary and anxious thoughts. So, teachers may ask students to imagine and talk about a place that makes them feel happy, or ask them to look around the room and talk about what they see. All of it may help them to distract from what is causing them distress.
- Help the student to find something relaxing that can relieve tension. One important symptom of panic attack is muscle tension. So, teachers may attempt to find ways to help their students relax, such as a few stretching exercises while taking deep breaths, and moving their bodies to release tension.
- Bring the concerns to a caregiver’s attention. A student’s caregivers need to know of anything concerning occurring in school. Caregivers may also be able to identify if concerns are present outside of school.
- Seek help from a school mental health professional. Support from a school mental health professional is warranted in most situations when panic attacks result in concerns.
- Seek support. With a caregiver’s permission, teachers may consult other professionals who specialize in helping children with emotional difficulties.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
For students to learn how to manage their anxiety and prevent the occurrence of future panic attacks, it is important that they understand their triggers, and that anxiety responses are temporary and not all bodily sensations are signs of an attack.
Panic attacks that are too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, feared, and that negatively interfere with your child and family’s daily lives, may indicate the possibility of Panic Disorder.
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Panic Disorder can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.