Helping Your Teen Identify and Address Their Panic Attacks

Identify The Problem

Many teens feel emotions more deeply, and this can sometimes develop into anxiety disorders.

Side effects like panic attacks can arise from an overload of anxiety. These scary events can look and feel like medical emergencies. If left untreated, they can debilitate the person experiencing them. Parents that identify the problem can help their child avoid panic attacks and find better ways to manage stress.

Know the Difference

Panic attacks can begin because of an excess of anxiety, but panic attacks and anxiety attacks are not the same things.

Anxiety attacks cause people to feel an immense amount of stress over a particular worry. Panic attacks can strike without warning and may feel or look like a physical health emergency. Panic disorder is a treatable illness.

A panic attack is like a storm. Before you know it, it is brought upon you and you are not sure what to do, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed. You may have impulses to escape, avoid, draw in others and/or react. If you try a simple exercise, you can help yourself move to a calmer mindset. You can start by “Anchoring” yourself to the present. Think of it as if you are planting yourself like a tree. Try to put your thoughts into the current moment. The next step is to focus on breathing through your stomach (belly breathing). This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This exercise will help you return back to the room and the space in front of you.

Understand the Strength

According to government studies through The National Comorbidity Survey, approximately 2.3 percent of children age 13-18 have panic disorder.

The moments of panic can strike without warning and cause frightening physical symptoms.

During a panic attack, people may feel as if they cannot breathe or that they may faint. Some may feel dizziness, shortness of breath, or believe it is a heart attack. Shakiness, an overwhelming sense of dread, and the belief that death is near are also possible.

Often, clients may feel that something bad is going to happen if they do not get their panic under control. They will make attempts to stop themselves from having the panic. This can actually increase the symptoms and prolong the duration of the attack.

Check Their Health

Panic disorders can happen to physically healthy people, but sometimes an undiagnosed health issue is to blame.

Heart conditions, asthma, and low blood sugar can cause many of the symptoms felt during a panic attack. Thyroid conditions and certain medications can also cause similar symptoms. For this reason, it is often wise to schedule a thorough medical exam to ensure the safety of the teen.

Psychological/Neuropsychological evaluations and thorough assessments can help clinicians and clients understand the function of their symptoms (e.g., protector, motivator, advisor). Understanding the function, context and purposes of the panic attack can help manage symptoms with adaptive responses instead of negative reactions.

Manage the Moment

Parents need to acknowledge the fear and discomfort felt by their teens. Panic attacks are not something people can instantly end.

The first thing a parent can do to help is to simply be present for their child. A person needs the same love and support during a panic attack as they would if they had a physical illness.

During a panic attack, the executive functioning center of the brain (the forebrain) can become highly dysregulated, making it difficult for someone to receive verbal information. Individuals who experience panic attacks, may not be able to advocate for their needs during the attack. They may express themselves in a variety of unusual ways (e.g., isolation, shutting down, anger, externalizing behaviors).

Stay calm during the attack and do not scold or become impatient.

Stay with the teen but follow their requests if they say they need more space or do not want anyone touching them. Some people feel better when they have someone to talk to after an attack. Others want to be alone and silent for a few minutes as they recover. Discuss their preferences when an attack is not happening to make it easier to know what to do when one begins. Develop a plan with your family and therapeutic providers on how to respond to the individual who experiences the panic attack. It is also crucial to plan what not to do.

Do not allow kids to avoid situations that have previously caused panic attacks.

Avoidance of places where an attack occurred could eventually leave the teen with nowhere that seems safe. Isolation may only make them feel worse and it could leave them at risk of feeling helpless if they have a panic attack in one of their few remaining safe places.

Get Professional Help

Children may outgrow anxiety issues as they mature and learn how to manage their stress more effectively. As the anxiety level decreases, it is possible that panic attacks may go away or decrease in frequency. However, some people may experience the problem throughout their life. If your child is experiencing ongoing anxiety and you have ruled out a physical condition, it is advisable to look for treatment from an anxiety specialist.

It is important to acknowledge to your teen that panic attacks are not uncommon. This could help your teen feel less alone.

Through counseling, they will learn to better understand their anxiety and how to overcome it.

Treatment acknowledges that panic attacks are a real issue that many people experience. This could help teens feel less alone. This acknowledgment may help them have more hope for overcoming their illness.

Evidence based treatment modalities including Cognitive-Behavioral therapy and Acceptance and Commitment therapy can help manage symptoms and promote more realistic and adaptive responses. In addition, research shows when this is combined with medication and exposure/response prevention therapy, long lasting progress can be made in managing panic and other anxiety related disorders.

Behavioral issues, problems at school, and health concerns can arise when anxiety and panic disorders take over the life of a teen. At Anxiety Institute, we offer treatment programs that help teenagers learn to retake control of their lives and emotions. Contact us to learn more about our services or schedule a consultation for your child.

About the Author

Andrew Barile, PsyD, NCSP

Clinical Supervisor

Andrew provides experience treating children and their families with a concentration in anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and trauma. He has wide-ranging assessment experience in neuropsychological, psychodiagnostic and psychoeducational evaluations to assist in therapeutic and educational treatment planning. He uses CBT, ACT, and compassion-focused approaches in his therapeutic relationships.

“My personal knowledge and experience of anxiety and fear, as a victim and as a conqueror, has gifted me the valuable asset of emotional intelligence. Knowledge and experience that will give me the empathy to connect with others and the grit to overcome adversity.”

Dr. Daniel Villiers

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