Three simple yet effective tools for helping a child through a panic attack
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The first time one of my kids had a panic attack, I didn't have any idea what to do. The pounding heartbeat, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, and feeling like you're losing control are disconcerting symptoms for adults to experience, but they're even more alarming for a child who doesn't know why it's happening. As a parent, it's scary not knowing how to help your child when they clearly need help.

The exact cause of panic disorder is unknown, but experts estimate it affects close to 4 percent of the population. Like other anxiety disorders, it also tends to run in families, which appears to be the case for my kiddos. But even people who don't have a full-fledged disorder can occasionally experience a panic attack, and it's good to know what actually helps.

My youngest was around six years old when he had his first bout of panic. It wasn't long after we'd tucked him into bed when he called for me with a shaky urgency in his voice. When I got to his room, he said he couldn't breathe and that his heart was going really fast. "I don't know what's going on," he said through chattering teeth. "My whole body won't stop shaking and I'm freaking out."

I immediately recognized the signs of panic, having gone through it with his older sister, but he was a lot younger than she had been when she had her first episode. Thankfully, the tools we used with her also worked with him.

Here's how we help our kids through a panic attack:


1) Verbalize what's happening to them.

Panic attacks are intense for the person experiencing them and saying something like "Calm down" isn't really helpful. They want to calm down, they just can't.

For our kids, explaining exactly what's happening, what they can expect to happen, and what they actually can control is the first step toward regaining calm. After the first time through it, they don't need this much detail, but here's a basic script of where we started:

"You're okay, even though it doesn't feel like it. You're just having a panic attack. The fear part of your brain is sort of stuck for a bit, and it keeps revving up your body. It's like your brain thinks there's a tiger chasing you, even though there isn't. That makes your heart beat really fast and makes it hard to breathe. You might feel like you're losing control. You might even feel like you're going crazy. But it'll pass soon, I promise. Panic attacks are just temporary glitches. Your brain and body will calm back own, usually within ten minutes or so. Let's work on helping you feel better while it works its way out of your system."

2) Use "box breathing" to help them catch their breath.

Breathing intentionally is one of the quickest ways to reset when your body is in a heightened state. The best technique we've encountered for this is an exercise called "box breathing" or "square breathing." It's actually a tool Navy Seals use to keep calm under stress, but it's so simple even kids can use it.

Slowly draw the shape of a square in the air, starting from the bottom left-hand corner. As you draw the first line upward, have your child breathe in for a count of five. Then have them hold their breath while you draw the top line, then exhale while you draw down the right side. Finally, have them hold the exhale while completing the square with the bottom line. Then repeat—breathe in, hold, breath out, hold. Around four or five seconds for each breath and hold wonders for getting breathing under control, which helps calm the brain and body.

Here's a quick video that shows how it works. (With our kids, I usually draw the box for them while talking them through the breaths and holds at first, then have them start drawing the box with me as they start to calm down.)

Box breathing relaxation technique: how to calm feelings of stress or anxiety youtu.be


3) Ground them in reality with the "4-3-2-1" exercise.

Panic is the brain gripped by a state of fear that doesn't reflect what's actually happening. It's basically the amygdala—the fight or flight center of the brain—wigging out for no apparent reason. The intense fear triggers the fight or flight response, forming a sort of feedback loop, with the body freaking out because the brain's freaking out, which makes the body freak out, and so on.

Getting the brain to focus on the body's physical senses can help break that loop and bring the body and brain back to a state of calm (or at least calmer). For this, we use a simple grounding exercise we call "4-3-2-1." (What we do is a variation of the 5-4-3-2-1 method developed by Captain Tom Bunn to help people cope with a fear of flying. You can see that method here.)

Have the child look for and then name, out loud:

- Four things they can see. ("I see my lamp. I see the cat. I see the window. I see my teddy bear.").

- Three things they can feel. ("I feel my pillow. I feel your hand. I feel the sheets.")

- Two things they can hear. ("I hear cars outside. I hear the heater running.")

- One thing they can smell. ("I smell your lotion.")

I always have the kids say a full sentence for each thing they count, as that reinforces the physical aspect of the exercise. Without fail, my kiddos are always calmer when they get to what they can smell. Super simple, but super effective.

It's important to note that these exercises don't stop an attack in its tracks. Panic usually just has to run its course. What they do is take the edge off, make the attack more tolerable, and help the kiddo wait it out without feeling like they have no control at all while it's happening.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks (which share similar symptoms and can respond to the same tools) aren't fun for kids or for parents. But when a kid knows what's happening and a parent has tools to help them manage it, they're a lot less scary for everyone involved.

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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