I heard a ruckus coming toward my office.
“Oh great, two students just got in a fight,” I thought.
The campus supervisors brought in Aileen and her friend. Aileen did not look good. Her friend was doing her best to comfort her.
The campus supervisor said that a group of female students were following Aileen with the intent to “jump her” (Middle School speak for fight). They needed a safe place for Aileen to stay as they dealt with the other girls.
My office is the place for that.
Aileen’s breathing got heavier and she started to shake. “I’m having a panic attack!”
I sat down in front of Aileen and said, “That’s great!”
She and her friend looked at me like I was crazy.
“You’re allowed to have a panic attack. You just had a bunch of girls try and fight you. Go right on ahead. Let’s breathe through it together.”
I kept eye contact and instructed her to breathe in slowly through her nose and out through her mouth. I challenged her to try and do it for 8 counts in and 8 counts out. She did pretty good, getting to about 6 counts.
As she breathed I asked her, “where do you feel your panic?”
“What does it look like?”
“If it was a color, what color would it be?”
“Um… I don’t know… red?”
“Wonderful! Your panic is red, shaking hands. Let’s keep breathing.”
Aileen was calm now. Her friend looked at me and said, “are you a doctor or something?”
“No,” I smiled. “I’m a mind-ninja.”
Where Panic Comes From
Many teens have moments of intense anxiety or something similar to panic attacks. Whether or not they have been or will be diagnosed with a psychological condition, like panic disorder, most teens will have to deal with panic at some point in their lives.
I don’t know if Aileen has panic disorder or if she was just really scared because she thought her physical health was in jeopardy. Either way, her panic was being fueled by one thing: her thoughts.
That’s right, panic comes from our thoughts. It’s a feeling and feelings are triggered by our thoughts. Let’s put Aileen’s situation in Brooke Castillo’s model:
Circumstance: Breathing heavily and shaking
Thought: I am having a panic attack and I need to stop it, but I can’t!
Action: Spiraling thoughts, frantic exclamations
Result: Loss of control, racing heart, sweating, shaking more = panic attack
This is a prime example of how our thoughts can actually lead to physical changes in our bodies, which is crazy and awesome. There are lots of examples of people using this connection purposefully to create positive physical changes. Reading an inspiring, motivational book gets you pumped, right? You get extra energy, sometimes even clarity of mind.
Some theories even go as far to say that thoughts can heal your own body! (Is a receding hairline something I can heal with my thoughts? Pretty please?)
I’m not going that far here, but I am a strong believer that thoughts have a huge impact on our feelings and results.
The Most Damaging Thought for a Panic Attack
“This shouldn’t be happening.”
This is really the most damaging thought for pretty much about everything. A child acting out in public. Stuttering during a speech. A breakup. “This shouldn’t be happening. This is not okay. This needs to stop.”
These thoughts will just lead to negative feelings that usually compound the problem. Jody Moore, master life coach, recently said that a panic attack is "having anxiety about having anxiety."
But what if you had positive feelings about your anxiety?
You’re probably looking at your screen right now like Aileen and her friend did when I told her that a panic attack was great.
Why can’t it be great? Or interesting? Or normal? Or acceptable?
A panic attack can’t hurt you. When you are shaking, sweating and your heart it racing, the truth is you are not in danger, even though it feels like you are. So you don’t need to stop it from happening, you just need to ride the wave like a boss until it hits the shore.
How to Stop Panic
If you are experiencing a panic attack, or if you are a parent whose teenager is having one, here are a few things that can be done to help stop a panic attack from progressing:
1) Let it happen. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but if you want to stop it you have to let it happen. Avoidance is anxiety’s best friend (anxiety.org). Don’t think you need to stop it, avoid it, or purge it out of your system. The first thing to do is to recognize it’s happening and watch it happen.
What Parents Can Do: give words of affirmation to your teen. “Having a panic attack is totally fine. Let’s experience this together.” Do not join them. One of the bad thoughts during a panic attack is that they are losing control. If you, as their parent, look like you are losing control then nobody is in control and that’s a scary thing that will fuel the panic attack in your teen.
2) Breathe. Breathing calms the body down. Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathing provides oxygen to your brain, which is incredibly useful.
What Parents Can Do: coach them through their breathing and breathe with them. Do not have them breathe into a paper bag. I just recently had an EMT vehemently dispel that myth during a first responder training. Your brain needs oxygen. You breathe out carbon dioxide. Don’t breathe in what you breathe out. Makes sense.
3) Get focused. Pick one small object, hold it in your hand, and focus on it. A stress ball, a pencil, a crumpled up piece of paper–anything works.
What Parents Can Do: A panic attack often makes the person feel like they are spinning, floating, spiraling, and other illusions of disconnection. They need to feel grounded. Have them focus on one object, name 5 objects immediately around them, or maintain eye contact with you.
4) Identify the panic. Notice where you are feeling panic. Say it out loud. Describe what it looks like, shape, size, and color. “I feel it behind my ears, it’s like a spiky, orange ball.”
What Parents Can Do. Coach them through identifying their panic. Ask them where in their body they feel anxiety. What does it feel like? What color is it? How would you describe this to someone who has never felt panic or anxiety before? Don’t cast any judgement, just be completely fascinated with their observations.
5) Will your muscles to release. Remember, our thoughts can cause physical change in our bodies. During a panic attack, parts of your body will tense up draining energy and messing with your blood flow. Relaxing your muscles will help to relax your thoughts, and vice versa.
What Parents Can Do. Coach them through relaxing their muscles. Don’t ask them which muscles are tense, just have them relax all of them. Start at the top and work your way down. “Relax your forehead. Relax your jaw. Relax your shoulders.” etc.
You Are Normal
After Aileen was calm, I explained the following to her.
There is nothing wrong with having a panic attack. It doesn’t mean you are weird, broken, or crazy. It means you have thoughts and feelings, like everyone else.
Aileen left my office that day more in control of her own life. All it took was a couple of good thoughts and a better understanding of emotion.
If you want to more info on panic attacks, this article on The Do's and Don'ts of Panic Attacks from Anxiety.org is a good one.