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Growing up as a child of the 90’s who was often told to just “suck it up” when things got tough, it took until I was several months postpartum to discover I had panic disorder. Before then, I suffered with repeated episodes of sudden crippling fear, anxiety, tight chests, itchy skin, racing hearts, and rapid shallow breathing. I remembered experiencing episodes like those as a kid, but after becoming a mother, these episodes became so much worse and more frequent. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s with a baby on my hip that I learned these “episodes” of mine were actually panic attacks.
Instead of getting the resources and help I could have had earlier in life, I was deemed as “dramatic” and “crazy” by family members and friends for the panic attacks I experienced through life. Unfortunately, many people with panic disorder experience the same stigma. That stigma, coupled with the stress of being a mom, can create a perfect storm of shame for mothers who experience panic attacks.
So here am I, a mother with panic disorder, telling you what I wish someone would have told me. What do moms with panic attacks need to know about panic attacks?
Panic Attacks Can Happen To Anyone, anytime, And Don’t Always Have A Cause
Many people will experience a panic attack at one point in their life. Though the cause of panic attacks are still unknown, some research has shown that panic attacks can be linked to:
- High levels of stress
- People who are in general more predisposed to anxiety or quick emotional outbursts
- Certain changes in brain function (such as brain changes that come with pregnancy and postpartum)
For most people, panic attacks seem to happen at random. Sometimes something as routine as a trip to the grocery store, or picking your child up from school, can spur a panic attack. With time, if panic attacks are regular to you, you may discover patterns to when they happen. For example, I can almost guarantee I will have a panic attack if I oversleep in the morning. The stress of being rushed first thing in the morning almost always sets off panic for me. With that in mind, I can prepare for the days when I miss the alarm.
Regardless of whether you’re able to link a pattern to your panic attacks or not, understand that you did nothing to cause them. Some research suggests that panic attacks happen due to an overstimulation of our “fight or flight” response. Imagine a bear was suddenly chasing you. You may feel similar feelings as a panic attack, such as a racing heart or a tight chest. In the random moment a bear may be chasing you, the feeling of panic makes perfect sense. Waiting in line at the store, or eating family dinner, on the other hand, doesn’t always fit the bill for a panic-worthy situation. When you recognize you are not the problem, it sure makes coping with panic attacks better.
Panic Attacks Don’t Always Equal Panic Disorder, But It’s Always Worth Talking To Someone About
Panic attacks can happen to anyone at any time. So if you’ve found yourself experiencing a panic attack when you’ve never had one before, don’t immediately jump to a diagnosis. As always, if you suspect that there’s more to it, please speak to a doctor.
According to Mayo Clinic, many people experience one or two panic attacks in their lifetime. If you are experiencing recurring panic attacks or spend lots of time worried about having another one, then consider talking to a doctor about panic disorder, or other anxiety-related issues.
Panic attacks are scary, but not deadly. No matter how much they make you feel like you’re going to die, you won’t. In the midst of having a panic attack, you may find yourself going to a doomsday conclusion about your life. Remember in those moments that not everything your brain thinks about in a panic attack is real. Though they make you feel like absolute crap, remind yourself that you are safe.
Panic Attacks Can Be A Side Effect Of Pregnancy and Postpartum
Up to 10% of women struggle with panic attacks during pregnancy. Though I’ve struggled with occasional panic attacks my entire life, I was one of those 10% who had a massive uptick during pregnancy. Having panic attacks while pregnant can be a terrifying experience. Understanding, once again, that it’s not your fault they’re happening can help you eliminate the shame behind them.
Some research suggests that panic attacks during pregnancy can be caused or exaggerated by pregnancy hormones, and other preexisting anxiety issues before pregnancy. Of course, pregnancy in and of itself is a stressful time. Stress in general can cause panic attacks.
During the first year after birth, women in general are more prone to developing mood disorders. Panic attacks are one of those potential postpartum risks. If you have experienced panic attacks during pregnancy, there is a chance they could become worse during the postpartum period. So please, speak to a doctor if you’re experiencing panic attacks during pregnancy. Don’t simply assume it’ll get better after the baby arrives, because there’s a good chance they may actually get worse.
Many of the normal stresses of having a new baby can make panic attacks worse. For example, sleep deprivation, traumatic birthing experiences, and the generalized anxiety of parenting can make any pre-existing mood disorder worse during the postpartum phase.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks during pregnancy or postpartum, speak to a doctor. Prioritizing sleep and rest is also hugely beneficial. As tempting as it is to hit up the lattes after a long night of cluster feeding, cutting back on caffeine also helps with managing panic attacks. As a fellow coffee addict, it sucks hearing you need to chill on the Starbucks, but genuine, actual shut-eye will be a much more effective treatment for panic attacks than coffee.
Panic Attacks Can Be Treated
I know from experience that panic attacks suck. They’re scary, and often make you feel like garbage for days afterword. When you’re a mom whose also trying to keep small humans alive and happy, the struggle of managing panic attacks can feel like a millstone around your neck, dragging you into the pit of despair. Even if your panic attacks are chronic, they can be treated and managed.
Cognitive behavior therapy has been shown to be an effective tool in managing panic attacks. Many people (such as I) go on medication to manage panic disorder. If you are an expecting mother or postpartum, it may also be a good idea to find a therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health.
Moms With Panic Disorder Aren’t Doomed
It took me until my son was almost 3 for me to finally come to grips with having panic disorder. I felt too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I was having frequent panic attacks, some with a cause, and many out of the blue. I worried that my diagnosis would make me look like a bad mom, or that I’d inadvertently traumatize my child with my illness. Once I finally worked up the courage to talk to my doctor about my panic attacks, I realized how long I spent needlessly suffering because I lived under the belief that my panic attacks were just me being “dramatic.”
Though having panic disorder is considered a chronic illness, it’s not a death sentence, no matter how deadly it feels. Cognitive behavior therapy and certain medications have been shown to be effective in treating panic disorder. From personal experience, I started seeing a drastic change in the severity and amount of panic attacks once I started therapy and SSRI medication. I went from multiple panic attacks a week down to maybe one a month.
As a mother, it can be easy to fall down the “what will this do to my kids” rabbit hole. Maybe your children have seen you have panic attacks. Or perhaps the fear of panic attacks have kept you from being the kind of mom you want to be. In my opinion, from one panicky mom to another, its much healthier for your loved ones to see you treat your panic attacks then ignore them. Don’t let stigma and fear keep you from getting help.
What Can Parents Do When They Have A Panic Attack Around Their Kids?
Perhaps you are a parent who has either experienced a one-off panic attack, or experiences them regularly. Having a panic attack around your children can be a terrifying experience. Trust me, I’ve unfortunately experienced that many times. Panic attacks themselves can’t always be prevented, you can get through them safely. Here’s some ways to get you through a panic attack safely when your children are around:
- Pause and breathe – Do your best to quiet your mind and take slow, deep breaths from your stomach. Block breaths are a great technique for calming yourself down. Breathe in for 4 counts, then out for 4 counts.
- If your partner is around, don’t be afraid to hand off the children to your partner. Often experiencing a panic attack around others can make the experience worse. If you’re alone, create a kid friendly escape plan for them. Have a tv show or simple quiet activity ready in case no other adults are around. Once your children are settled, continue with your coping mechanisms wherever you’re comfortable.
- Avoid speaking negatively to yourself during the panic attack. When I experience panic attacks, I sometimes pretend like I’m talking to a friend and not myself. I tell myself anything I would tell a close friend whose in my shoes. Validating your emotions and experience will help. Gaslighting yourself or forcing yourself to “suck it up” will only make it worse.
- Don’t be afraid to have age appropriate conversations about panic attacks with your kids. Often when kids don’t fully understand why their parent is distressed, they may blame themselves for your distress. Give them an explanation, and reminding them that it’s not their fault. Often if I’ve experienced a panic attack around my 3 year old, I’ll explain that Mama had some “big feelings” that I needed to get out safely. Now that my “big feelings” are out, I’m all better.
- Make time to recover and practice self care regularly. Experiencing a panic attack can take a lot out of you, so snapping right back to normal may result in more panic attacks. Give yourself time to recover afterwords.
Resources For Managing Panic Attacks
- Rootd – This app is a free anxiety management tool. It has a fabulous little red “panic button” you press when a panic attack happens, and gives you real-time tips on how to make it though safely. There’s also lots of educational resources on managing anxiety throughout the app.
- Betterhelp – Is an online therapy service that makes therapy accessible and affordable for all people. They have a huge database of therapist with many specialties, and offer many ways to participate in therapy.
- Faithful Counseling – Is very similar to Betterhelp, but is a database of online Christian therapists. If you would prefer to receive therapy from a faith-based perspective, then this could be just for you.
- Postpartum Support International – Is a massive database for mothers experiencing postpartum mood disorder. They have a huge database of certified therapists all across the US, as well as online support groups.