What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an overwhelming, sudden surge of intense anxiety or fear with high levels of physical discomfort that can reach its peak within minutes. Examples of some physical symptoms that accompany a panic attack include:
- shortness of breath
- heart palpitations
- a sensation of choking
- tightness of the chest
- stomach pains or nausea
Panic attacks can often come on sporadically and unpredictably. Some people who experience panic attacks may not be able identify any reason for feeling fearful, while others may recognize that there are triggering events that prompt the attack. Panic attacks may be a part of a mental health disorder such as Panic Disorder, and attacks affect children, teens, and adults alike. Experiencing a panic attack first-hand can be extremely terrifying, but watching your teen experience it can feel just as unbearable. Parents may witness their teens appearing to have a full-blown medical emergency, such as a heart attack, or they may notice subtler signs such as frequent physical complaints like a stomach pain or chest pain. Teens may describe themselves as “going crazy” or feeling “weird.” They may begin to avoid situations or places without explanation, such as school or social interactions. Panic attacks can cause teens and their parents to feel helpless, but there is hope. There are strategies to effectively cope with the attacks. The key is educating and practicing these strategies before your teen is in the midst of an attack.
Knowledge is Power
Helping your teen become an expert on his/her panic attacks is one of the most powerful ways to combat them. Find a good time to openly discuss this topic, preferably when your teen is relaxed and not overwhelmed with other stressors. Take a non-judgmental, accepting stance, as your teen may feel shame or embarrassment for experiencing panic attacks. Normalize panic attacks and emphasize that the occurrence of a panic attack does not make someone “crazy”, weak, or silly. Validate that the fear and discomfort someone feels during an attack is very real, and worth spending time talking about.
Educate your teen that our bodies have natural reflexes that prepare us to defend ourselves when we sense danger. These can be referred to as our bodies’ “fight, flight or freeze” responses, and they can be adaptive in keeping us safe. However, these responses can become hypersensitive and can misinterpret events as threatening even though we are not in any real physical danger. This can result in a panic attack that can feel extremely uncomfortable and scary. Although many fear serious health problems or even death due to the physical discomfort, it is important to know that panic attacks will not cause the body any physical harm. Panic attacks have not been shown to physically damage the brain or the body, so remind your teen that he/she is safe. Just knowing this fact can significantly decrease the intensity or duration of an attack.
Another helpful fact for teens to know is that panic attacks are relatively short, sometimes lasting less than ten minutes at a time. Remind teens that the attacks will pass, and they will not cause your teen to “lose control” indefinitely. As uncomfortable as the attacks are, coming to some level of acceptance of them, rather than trying to fight or control the sensations, can be helpful.
Practice Makes Perfect
Helping your teen develop effective coping strategies for panic attacks takes some preparation and practice. The first step is to recognize the signs of a panic attack, such as muscle tension in certain areas of the body or the feelings of utter overwhelm and terror. Having your teen identify where in his/her body your teen feels the panic attack, or the thoughts that go through your teen’s head during an attack, can help him/her to recognize when to implement the strategies.
Next, you need the strategies to implement. One of the most common strategies used for panic attacks is the use of breathing to relax the body and the mind. During a panic attack, people typically have short, shallow breaths which can increase the sensation of hyperventilation or choking. Forcing one’s self to take deep, deliberate breaths not only calms the body, but also forces us to focus on something other than the feelings of fear or panic. There are many different breathing exercises that can be utilized, such as “belly breathing,” which involves inhaling deeply through your nose, expanding your belly with air, and exhaling through your mouth slowly (visualizing your belly filling up with air like a balloon and deflating with an exhale can help.) Your teen can also count the duration of each inhale and exhale, such as inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for ten seconds. Practicing the use of breathing can be difficult at first and takes patience. Continue to encourage your teen to keep at it and refocus your teen back to counting the duration of their inhales and exhales.
Many people who experience panic attacks engage in thinking patterns that can worsen the intensity of the attack. People may have catastrophic predictions that they will lose all control and they will not be able to survive the situation. Many teens assume that everyone is noticing their symptoms of panic and that they will be criticized or ostracized for it. These kinds of thoughts only intensify our feelings of fear and physical discomfort. Help your teen practice challenging some of these thoughts to see if they are realistic or irrational by asking questions such as: Will this kill me? Have I have survived a similar situation like this in the past? Do I have concrete evidence that anyone is negatively judging me right now? If your teen is able to recognize that some of his/her thinking is unrealistic, you can help your teen replace these thoughts with more realistic ones such as, “this is uncomfortable, but it will not kill me” and “I’ve gotten through this before and it will pass this time too.” It can be helpful to have a standard list of calming things that your teen can tell him/herself if a panic attack occurs; having your teen write them down somewhere accessible can be useful.
Often times when someone is experiencing a panic attack, they have sensations of detachment from their surroundings and feel trapped in a vortex of intense fear. One strategy to help your teen to get back in touch with the safety of their current environment is the use of “grounding.” Grounding utilizes someone’s senses to connect to the present moment which can detract from racing thoughts contributing to panic or anxiety. There are many different ways to ground one’s self, such as counting all the objects that are blue in the room or making a list of every street name (or fruit or boy’s names or any other topic) the teen can remember. Teens can engage their sense of touch by holding something textured or engage their sense of smell by using aromatherapy. They can even distract themselves with a slightly challenging mental task, such as counting backwards from one hundred by threes.
If At First, You Don’t Succeed . . .
Educating, discussing, and practicing ways for your teen to get through his/her panic attacks may not result in the immediate alleviation or elimination of all future attacks. Teens may still experience future attacks in which some strategies are not seen as the “fix” or the “cure.” This is not an indication of failure or lack of trying on your teen’s part – like all things, using coping strategies takes practice and time to reinforce. If you are present with your teen during a panic attack, remain encouraging, patient, and gentle with him/her. Do not tell your teen to “calm down” or “relax,” as this will most likely frustrate your teen and be motivated by your own need to calm your anxiety about their attack. If you are feeling an intense need to “do something” to make your teen’s panic attack stop, just remind yourself that being physically present with your teen is sometimes enough. You may not need to say anything. Your presence communicates to your teen that you care and you will be with him/her through this difficult time.
Ultimately, if panic attacks persist and are interfering with your teen’s ability to engage in pleasurable activities, social interactions, or school attendance, you can get additional help by seeking therapy for your teen. Panic attacks can be successfully managed with therapy modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Behavior Therapy; medication can also assist in the progression of improvements made in therapy.
Although this may be a very scary experience for you and your teen, panic attacks are manageable with knowledge and a set of tools that are tailored specifically to your teen. Remaining confident that your teen can survive these attacks is powerful, and you can be one of your teen’s greatest sources of support.
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TEEN THERAPY CENTER CAN HELP!
Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.