Panic Attacks in Teens
Panic disorder is a common and treatable anxiety disorder that most often develops between the ages of 15 and 35, though it can appear at any time. More than 3 million Americans will experience panic disorder during their lifetime. Teens with panic disorder will experience panic attacks, which are unexpected and repeated periods of intense fear or discomfort, accompanied by other symptoms such as feeling short of breath. The panic can last a few minutes or a few hours.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Intense fearfulness or nervousness (a sense that something terrible is happening or a fear of dying, losing control or losing your mind)
- Racing or pounding heartbeat and/or chest pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
Teens with symptoms of panic attacks should first be evaluated by their family physician or pediatrician. If their doctor finds no other physical illness or condition as a cause for the symptoms, parents should take their teen to be evaluated by a child psychiatrist.
Treatment of Panic Disorder
The exact cause of panic disorder is currently unknown, but most experts agree that the development of panic disorder is complex and most likely the result of numerous factors. Fortunately, the disorder is treatable. Specific medications prescribed by your psychiatrist may stop panic attacks. Psychiatrists can also help the teen, and their family, learn to: identify panic attack triggers; reduce stress or conflict that might cause an attack; and control the anxiety when attacks occur. Many adolescents with panic disorder respond well to the combination of medication and psychotherapy, and early treatment can prevent the complications of panic disorder such as depression and substance abuse.
Consequences of Not Treating
Because adolescence is a challenging time filled with fears and insecurities, the signs and symptoms of panic disorder may be easily overlooked at first, but getting early treatment can be vital to a teen’s success. If not recognized and treated, panic disorder can severely complicate a teen’s life. Adolescents with untreated panic disorder may:
- experience problems with relationships, schoolwork, and normal development;
- begin to feel anxious most of the time, even when they are not having panic attacks;
- develop severe depression and may be at risk of suicide;
- use alcohol or drugs to try to decrease their anxiety; or
- develop “agoraphobia,” which is when the individual avoids situations where they fear a panic attack may occur, or situations where help may not be available. In severe cases, the youth may become so afraid, they cannot leave home. Approximately one-third of those with panic disorder will also develop the symptoms of agoraphobia.
Coping with Panic Disorder
In addition to seeking treatment, most people with panic disorder should develop coping mechanisms to prevent and deal with panic attacks. Here are some tips for your teen:
Stress management techniques can help reduce panic attacks and help your teen feel more calm and relaxed, while staying energized and focused. Some common stress-reducing activities include yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises.
Visualization works well for many people. It involves spending time alone before a situation that seems stressful, closing your eyes, and imagining yourself succeeding in that situation. For example, if your teen tends to have panic attacks in large social situations, but they want to go to a graduation party, then before the event, your teen can imagine having fun or remaining less anxious at the party.
Thinking positive can help those suffering from panic disorder. Many teens with panic disorder are plagued by negative thinking. Encourage your teen to identify the negative thoughts they have throughout the day, and then replace them with a positive thought. For example, if your teen had a panic attack recently, they might be embarrassed and thinking, “No one will want to hang out with me again.” Instead, your teen should purposely think, “I feel embarrassed that I had an attack, but my friends already know about my anxiety and they still like me anyway. No one is perfect.”
When your teen has an attack, there are steps he or she can take to cope. Give your teen these tips:
- Identify the signs that point to a panic attack. You should become an expert in noticing what symptoms first appear in your body before the full onset of an attack. By noticing the signs and taking steps to calm down or avoid triggers, you can reduce the severity of the attack.
- Eliminate anything causing you anxiety. Once you have noticed the signs, try to remove yourself from whatever is triggering your fears. Whether it’s a location, person, noise, or situation that is causing your anxiety, your goal is to get away from it as soon as possible.
- Focus on your breathing. During a panic attack, you take short and shallow breaths. Inhaling slowly (to the count of 4) and deeply will help to relax your mind and body.
- Repeat a mantra. When you are in a calm state of mind, choose a favorite quote or other saying that gives you hope, and memorize it. When an attack comes on, say your mantra over and over again. Some people find this technique distracts their brain from the thoughts that triggered the attack in the first place.
Your teen may feel scared, confused, and depressed when they get a diagnosis of panic disorder. Parents must provide their teen with encouragement. Be sure to tell your teen that having panic disorder does not mean they cannot succeed in life. Through treatment and practice, your teen can achieve their goals and enjoy their life.