About panic attacks
Most people have experienced a sense of panic at some time in their life. It is a normal reaction to a life-threatening situation, for example a house fire or road accident. Panic usually takes the form of an extreme feeling of fear and dread and the overwhelming desire to escape the situation.
Feelings of panic are an instinctive reaction to prepare our minds and bodies to react to a life-threatening situation. The feelings usually disappear gradually after the frightening event has passed. However, some people experience panic when there is no threat or frightening event - this can lead to a panic attack.
The symptoms of a panic attack are very distressing and can include:
- a pounding and racing heart, even feeling your heart is stopping or missing beats
- shortness of breath or a feeling of choking
- tremors or violent shaking
- tingling or numbness in your fingers and toes
- feeling sick, dizzy and sweating
- a feeling of losing control of your bladder or bowels, which can cause temporary incontinence
- a fear that you are about to die
- a sense that you, or things around you, are not real
- feeling you are losing control of your mind
- feeling aggressive towards anyone who gets in your way of escape.
Things to think about
In trying to understand why a child or young person may be having panic attacks, ask yourself whether they:
- worry a lot or have low confidence?
- have recently experienced bereavement or parental separation?
- have experienced any trauma in the past?
- are under any stress at school, for example exams, changing schools or being bullied?
It is important to realise that the child or young person may not know why they are having panic attacks.
If a child or young person has panic attacks regularly, this can interfere with their normal daily activities like school and social life.
As well as dealing with the panic attacks, the child or young person often has to deal with the fear of having further attacks, feelings of embarrassment about their behaviour during an attack and teasing from other young people.
Having panic attacks can lead children and young people to avoid certain situations. It is also stressful for a child or young person to explain seemingly irrational fears and behaviours to parents, teachers and other young people.
This BBC video tells the stories of two young people who have experienced panic attacks:
Think about your response
Panic attacks are very frightening to those experiencing them and to those around them. By their nature, the child or young person has lost control of their emotions and can be very unpredictable. Remaining in control yourself is extremely important in helping a child or young person who is having a panic attack.
What you can do
During a panic attack
- Make sure you follow your organisation's first aid procedures.
- Stay calm and relaxed - the child or young person will pick up your tone of voice and body language and can be reassured by this.
- Be confident and reassuring, and explain that you understand that this is frightening for them.
- Remember that the child or young person is feeling a sense of uncontrollable and irrational fear, and they may not understand why.
- Ask them if there is anything obvious that is frightening them but don’t interrogate them about why they are feeling so afraid.
- Use reassuring language: "you'll be alright", "I'll keep you safe", "you're not having a heart attack".
- Explain that their symptoms are not life-threatening.
- Help them to leave the situation and go to somewhere calm and quiet.
- Try to distract them by talking about normal things.
- Get them to concentrate on slow deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Doing this together will help.
- If they feel dizzy, get them to sit or lie down in a safe position.
- Give them a drink to sip on, but not drinks containing caffeine.
- Stay with them until the panic attack is over, to keep them safe.
- If the panic attack happens in front of other young people, clearly explain the situation to them, ensuring they do not question, tease or fuss over the child or young person.
When they are not panicking
- Talk to the child or young person and explain the physical symptoms of extreme anxiety. This may help them to understand the feelings they get when they are having a panic attack, and that these are normal during a panic attack.
- If appropriate, ask the child or young person if they know what might be causing them to panic.
- Suggest they reduce their intake of stimulants like tea, coffee and cola.
- Encourage them to get plenty of exercise and make time for relaxation.
- With the child or young person's permission, ensure that other key people around the child or young person are aware that they are experiencing panic attacks.
Anxiety Canada, self-help website:
Panic self-help guide from NHS Inform:
Mindshift App, to help young people manage anxiety:
When to contact a health professional
Contact a health professional if you, or the child or young person, are concerned about any of the physical symptoms around their panic attacks.
Who to contact if you're still concerned
For parents and carers
Please contact your health visitor, school, GP or other professional involved with your family.
Please consult with other professionals involved or the named person, and to help identify the most appropriate support, go to: www.nhsfife.org/camhs-choosingtherightsupport