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How to Help Your Child Through an Anxiety Attack: 3 Steps

Paula is the mother of four children. She also holds a degree in education and works in an elementary school.


Anxiety Attacks

I have four children who suffer from high anxiety. So do I. It is in our genetics. Most of the time, we deal with it well, but sometimes it escalates beyond the normal into what has been termed an anxiety attack. A few years ago, during the summer, my husband, my kids, and I were on a hike in the foothills above our home. I cannot remember what triggered it, but one of my kids had a full-blown anxiety attack, the kind where they completely freeze up and cannot move or think beyond the fear.

I stopped beside them and tried to help, but at that time, I did not have a lot of skills developed for dealing with anxiety attacks. I remember my own anxiety beginning to rise and threaten to take over, but I took a deep breath and looked around, and my eyes fell on—of all things—a rock. I picked it up and put it in my child's hand and said, "I want you to hold this rock, feel it, look at it. This rock is real—not your thoughts."

Calming an Anxious Child

I had no idea at that time that I had just used one of the most effective ways to calm down an anxious child. Since then, I have learned—and studies show—that a child can come back to a calm state by using their breath, their body, and then logic. So, I would like to share this simple three-step process that incorporates these three things. It has helped both my children and myself when anxiety rises high.

Breath, Body, and Facts

When we are afraid of something, our brains enter a state known as freeze, flight, or fight. Each person reacts to the fear differently. Some freeze—their body locks up, and they become highly focused on the thing causing their fear. Others will become aggressive and fight the fear. And some will just run from or avoid the thing they fear. In all three cases, the body enters a hyper-aroused state. All systems focus on survival, and the unnecessary functions will shut down.

Using Breathing

Studies have shown that using the breath can bring the body back into a calm state. There are many different ways to use breathing to bring the body and mind back into a calm state.

  • Mindfulness is a process of using the breath to focus on the present moment.
  • There is also box breathing, where you count and control the timing of the inhale and exhale of the breath.
  • Many different spiritual practices use breathing when they meditate to enter calm states of mind.

Focusing on the Body

There are currently many studies showing that our body stores trauma that has happened to us. It stores the fear at the molecular level. These studies show that when we can focus on our body and its sensations, they can help us process and understand what we are feeling. We can use our senses to get us in touch with our body. Then, when we learn these internal sensations, it will lead to better self-regulation and the ability to calm our body when we notice it is hyper-aroused by fear.

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Looking at the Facts

And lastly, considering the facts can help with anxiety, once the body and mind have been brought back to a calm state. Brian Debeker wrote a book called The Gift of Fear, which I highly recommend for anyone who deals with anxiety. It helped me understand the difference between fear and anxiety:

  • Fear is a gift to keep us safe, according to Debeker. Fear is that gut feeling we get when something in the moment feels off. For example, you see the pilot of your flight not able to walk a straight line. That is fear that says don't get on that flight.
  • Anxiety is when the danger is not there in the moment. Anxiety is the fear of flying because you "might" crash.

So, once the mind is calm, you can then look at the facts surrounding the fear.

Three Simple Steps

So, that day I handed my child a rock and asked them to look at it, I was using the senses of their body to bring them back to a calm state. Since then, I have researched and tried many different methods to calm anxiety, and this simple three-step process has worked better and quicker than any other one.

  1. Make eye contact and have your child take three deep, slow, calming breaths
  2. Have them hold up 5 fingers. Then have them find 5 things they see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. Repeat the first two steps if necessary.
  3. Guide them to find the facts. Ask if the fear is something happening right now in this moment. No. Then guide them with the facts. Help them research and find out the facts if you need to. Always return to the idea of finding out if it is something happening right now.

Why the Rock Helped on That Summer Day

After I handed my child the rock, I saw a visible difference. Their body relaxed, their eyes lost that panicked look, and their breathing slowed. Once they focused on the rock and were calm, I could then talk to my child about what was real and what was not, and we were able to continue our family time.

It was such a breakthrough moment for me. And now I understand through my study why it worked. A calm body and a calm mind can process and sort the facts from the fears. Tweak this method so it fits your child, and you will have an amazing tool to help your child when they need it. Eventually, they will be able to use it on their own and become a strong, independent person.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Paula Flu

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