Anxiety is one of the main underlying conditions that occur alongside eating disorders, which means that if you have a child who has an eating disorder, it’s very helpful to learn about anxiety disorders and how loved ones can help someone through an anxiety attack.
If you are a parent who has no experience with anxiety disorders, then it can be helpful to understand that while everyone feel fear, stress, and anxiety on a normal basis, someone who has an anxiety disorder suffers on a much greater level, and the fear and worry do not go away, and often get worse over time. While someone who has normal fear will be able to identify a particular stressor causing the fear, those of us who have anxiety disorders feel a generalized sense of fear and panic that appears separate from any particular event or situation.
Not everyone who has an anxiety disorder experiences anxiety attacks (also called panic attacks), but those of us who do find ourselves feeling acute physical symptoms of anxiety. For many of us, our anxiety manifests in physical symptoms even when we have no idea what we’re worried about. The physical symptoms of panic can feel completely disconnected from our current life circumstances, and it can seem as if they are coming out of nowhere.
Since many of us feel our anxiety symptoms in our chests, an anxiety attack can feel very much like a heart attack or other major life-threatening event. Hence, many of us worry that we are going to die when we experience an anxiety attack. Everyone experiences anxiety attacks differently, and many of us will have different symptoms each time we have an anxiety attack. This makes it very difficult for loved ones to know how best to help us weather the storm.
Here are some common symptoms of an anxiety attack or panic attack:
1. Chest pain: One of the most notable symptoms of an anxiety attack is chest pain, heart palpitations, and an accelerated heart rate. Some people describe it as pressure on their chest, fluttering in their chest, stabbing pain in their chest, etc. These sensations are overwhelming and terrifying, and often fuel our anxiety attack since we believe we are under immediate threat of dying.
2. Sweating, trembling & shaking: Many times we sweat, tremble and shake during an anxiety attack. This may or may not be visible to our loved ones, but we feel a deep sense of discomfort over these sensations, as well as a deep lack of terrifying lack of control. As our mind races to make sense of these symptoms, we may demand that our body stops sweating, trembling and shaking RIGHT NOW! Unfortunately, such demands have no bearing on our anxiety, and often only serve to make it worse.
3. A sense of choking, shortness of breath & smothering: It is common to feel some level of constriction in our airways. This can increase our panic because we feel unable to access air at a normal level. During the anxiety attack, we believe that this restriction of air will continue and get worse, which can increase our anxiety attack symptoms. The fear of dying from lack of air feels very real.
4. Dizziness and Fainting: During an anxiety attack, our senses are overwhelmed with fear, which can overwhelm our sense of balance and even lead to a complete mental shut down in the form of passing out. Some of us have passed out in public, and in dramatic fashion, which adds to our experience of shame about our anxiety attack. Many times we have no idea that we are having a panic attack or that we are about to pass out until the moment it happens.
5. Fear of dying: Almost all of the sensations described above lead to a severe fear that we have lost control of our bodies and are “going crazy.” We sincerely believe this is a life-threatening event that will not resolve itself. Depending on the severity of our symptoms, we often believe that we are dying during an anxiety attack. Many of us have called 911 or had bystanders, employers and loved ones do so on our behalf. We frequently go to emergency rooms with the full belief that we are dying, only to be told that it’s “just” an anxiety attack.
The experience of having an anxiety attack is extremely terrifying. Never hesitate to take your child to the ER or call 911 if you feel afraid. Paramedics and ER doctors see anxiety attacks regularly, and will be able to identify whether there is something life-threatening going on vs. anxiety symptoms.
Unfortunately, some professionals are not very thoughtful when presenting the diagnosis of an anxiety attack, which can lead to shame and increased anxiety. Often a doctor’s diagnosis that “it’s just anxiety” can make us feel as if we have wasted everyone’s time and are pathetic and needy. This, of course, just increases our anxiety. This is why it’s so important for parents to understand panic attacks and help their children get through them and move on with minimal shame.
Here are some things parents should know about anxiety attack symptoms:
1. Timing: Panic attacks typically build in severity over the course of about 10 minutes or less. Those 10 minutes can be incredibly scary, but symptoms will subside gradually after they reach a peak.
2. Call for help if you need it: During an anxiety attack, your child will be in extreme distress. If you feel unable to handle the situation in any way and at any time, don’t hesitate to call 911 or go to the ER.
3. Acknolwedge how your child feels, and accept how bad it feels. It’s all right to say to your child that they may be having a panic attack. Say this in a calm, confident, accepting tone, and your child may find relief in having a name for their experience. Allow the anxiety symptoms to arise under your care and acceptance. Help your child name the symptoms, and write them down if that seems to help your child recognize that their feelings are real and valid. Don’t ask questions about why the anxiety is happening – many times we actually don’t know the cause of our anxiety attack until we have reflected after the event.
4. Calm them, but not by saying “calm down.” Telling someone who is having a panic attack to calm down can make the symptoms worse, because we desperately want to calm down, and feel guilty and more stressed if we perceive that you need us to hurry up. Instead, find a truly calm place within yourself. You may need to practice mindfulness to access this calm place quickly in the face of your child’s anxiety attack. When you can find calm during our storm, and hold confidence that the anxiety will pass and we will be OK, we will feel safer under your care.
5. Reassure them by saying that you are here for them. During panic attacks, many of us feel deeply ashamed of bringing anyone around us “down” with us. We often experience feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. It’s important for loved ones to assure someone who is having an anxiety attack that they can take all the time they need to recover, and that it’s absolutely no problem for you to sit there and be with them. Say things like “this is exactly where I want to be,” and “I am here for you as long as you need me” to help them understand your unconditional positive regard in the face of a debilitating anxiety attack.
6. Breathe with them. This only works if you have practiced some breathing exercises with your child in advance (which is a good idea). If you have not practiced breathing exercises, then skip this step for this anxiety attack, as it may cause irritation. If you have practiced breathing together, try some breathing exercises. We may push back or even become angry with you when you attempt this, but don’t take it personally – our anger is just the anxiety talking. Just try a few breaths together, listening and paying attention to whether it is helping. Consider downloading a deep breathing podcast on your phone that you can use to help both of you breathe during the panic attack.
7. Tools help some people recover from an anxiety attack. For example, some people find aromatherapy, a cold compress, a heavy blanket, a glass of cold water, or meditative music helpful. Some people find it helpful to listen to guided meditation or yoga nidra podcasts during an anxiety attack. Once you know your child has anxiety attacks, keep these tools on hand so you can pull them out as needed. For example, if smelling something helps, carry a small bottle of essential oils at all times. If listening to yoga nidra helps, then download a favorite podcast on both your own and your child’s phone. Be aware that these tools may work sometimes and not others. Try not to get frustrated or take it personally if a tool doesn’t work – just try something else, or just stay calm, attentive, and present for a while.
8. Medication may help your child recover faster, and may be the route recommended by their care team. If your child’s doctor has prescribed medication to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, then keep them avialable in various places around your home and other locations so that you have medication ready to go when necessary.
Once the anxiety attack seems to be coming to completion, your child may need to take a nap or at least rest for a while. Anxiety attacks are physically and emotionally draining, so don’t rush off to do something right away. If you have plans or are supposed to be somewhere, try to delay your arrival by at least an hour to provide time for recovery.
When your child appears to be fully recovered, set an appointment with a care provider to talk about the anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks can seriously impact your child’s eating disorder behaviors, so take every attack seriously and talk to your child’s treatment team so they know about it and can recommend a course of action.
Finally, check in with your child periodically about their anxiety levels. Especially in the days following an anxiety attack, your child may have residual symptoms. Many of us with anxiety hide our symptoms for fear of being a burden or being seen as weak, and parents can be of tremendous help by actively checking in and allowing us to acknowledge our anxiety symptoms without fear or judgement.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911 immediately.