How to Handle a Panic Attack In Front Of Your Kids
The day began like any other. My son woke at 5:30 a.m. I changed his outfit and diaper and readied his bottle. My daughter woke soon thereafter. She ate muffins and watched cartoons while I fed my son, burped him, and trimmed his paper-thin nails. And when my son napped, I readied myself for the day.
I brushed my teeth, tossed my hair up, and slipped on a pair of black leggings. I made and drank a cup of coffee. But sometime between breakfast and lunch, I lost control of myself and mind. I had a panic attack on a New York City bus with my two young children in tow.
I don't recall precisely when it began, or why. I know we were on the road—somewhere between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. I know the bus was full. Strangers sat beside me and in front of me. The engine rumbled beneath my backside. And the sun shone on my face. It strobed as we passed industrial buildings, commercial buildings, and high-rise buildings—buildings full of warmth, energy, and life. But before I knew it, that energy was coursing through me. My leg shook. My mind raced. My stomach began churning and my chest began tightening. I wanted to get up and run.
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I didn't (and still don't) know why. I wasn't in danger. No one was harassing me or sneaking up behind me. No one was yelling and there were no sudden movements or loud noises. My children were also very well-behaved. And yet the urge to flee was overwhelming. My mind and leaden legs told me an attack was imminent, and I began pouring sweat.
It was perfectly room temperature on the bus and every inch of skin was dripping. My clothes and winter coat were soaked.
Of course, I want to tell you I was able to get a handle on myself and my emotions. I want to tell you I was able to "pull it together" for the sake of myself and, more importantly, my kids. But my vision and world narrowed. I started breathing shallowly and rapidly. My daughter asked if I was OK, but I couldn't understand her words or even respond. Instead, I just sat there: shivering and silent.
Mom was gone. Mom's body was running on autopilot. Mom had tapped into some subconscious physical reserve.
That said, I am not alone. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults each year. Panic disorder in particular affects about 6 million, and women are twice as likely as men to be affected.
Handling a Panic Attack as a Parent
In order to cope, preparation is key, according to Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City.
"It's important to practice self-care on a regular basis," says Thompson. "Often, people think of self-care in a moment of crisis, but find the things that make you feel light and 'in balance' every day and prioritize them. For example, some people work out while others practice meditating. The point is to find what works for you and do it."
You should also get proper nutrition and sleep, as a deficit in either can trigger anxiety.
That said, prioritizing self-care and sleep when you are a parent—particularly a new parent—is hard. Scratch that: It is nearly impossible. Plus, even with preparation and planning, you can still experience anxious thoughts. If you find yourself on the verge of an anxiety attack while caring for your children, the first thing you should do is take a step back.
"I encourage my clients to pause and take a few deep breaths," says Jaime Filler, an Atlanta-based licensed marriage and family therapist. "This gives the parent a chance to regulate their own body, reducing anxiety or panic. When possible, take a break."
Ensure your kids are in good hands. "If you have a partner at home, hand off the baby. If you are alone with your child or baby, place them in a safe space, like a high chair, toy room, or crib, and splash some water on your face," says Filler.
Let older kids be occupied by a TV show or iPad, and get help from a friend or neighbor if necessary, recommends Thompson. "Do whatever you have to do in the moment to make sure your child is safe so you can then make sure you are safe." Once they are settled, use any coping tools you have, including—but not limited to—meditation, medication, exercise, and diaphragmatic breathing.
As for me, I did my best to sit with my feelings and not stifle them. I let my daughter rub my arm and hold my hand. I took deep breaths, as deep as my body would allow, until they became sustainable. Until my heart rate slowed and my body cooled. And then, when we got off the bus, I paused.
I went to Starbucks and bought my daughter a cake pop and myself a large iced drink because I needed it. Because my daughter needed it. And because we deserved it. Because sometimes self-care comes in a cup, or is served on a short, sugar-filled stick.