Panic disorder is a mental health condition that often begins during the teenage or young adult years. It can come up during a stressful time, such as around the time of high school graduation, after a difficult romantic breakup, or during a family move or parental divorce. It can also sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere. Parenting a teen with panic disorder can be difficult because the symptoms, while not physically harmful, are scary and overwhelming for your teen and for you. Here is a primer on what panic disorder is and how you can best support your teen through the acute symptoms, panic attacks, and the disorder as a whole.
What are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?
The main symptom of panic disorder is the appearance of panic attacks. During a panic attack, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode. The difference between a panic attack and the appropriate use of “fight or flight” is that during a panic attack, the person is not really in danger. If your teen were to meet up with a bear in the woods, the adrenaline rush would be not only appropriate, but possibly life-saving. When he or she has a panic attack during the course of the school day or while eating dinner, the symptoms are not needed and contribute to further panic.
Symptoms of a panic attack include the following:
- gasping for air
- a racing or irregular heartbeat
- a sense of danger
- chest pain
- trembling or shaking
It occurs suddenly and it lasts only a few minutes at a time, though the symptoms can keep coming back for hours or days. They can happen in the midst of a completely routine activity, when a teen is faced with something mildly stressful (such as explaining to a teacher why homework wasn’t completed), or even during the middle of the night.
What are the Dangers of Panic Disorder?
Physically, panic attacks pose almost no danger. The body is equipped to handle the adrenaline surge and will get back to normal fairly quickly. Even though your teen’s heart might be racing and he or she is hyperventilating, the heart and lungs are doing what they need to do and will not be impacted. The chest pain that’s associated with a panic attack doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with the heart (though if it’s the first time that it’s happening or the discomfort feels different than it usually does, it should be checked out).
Mentally, however, panic attacks can take their toll. Panic attacks may lead to the following:
- Your teen is likely to worry about what’s wrong, and this can lead to general anxiety.
- Many people with panic disorder go on to develop agoraphobia. This means that they fear being in situations where they can’t escape easily. If your teen has a panic attack while on a public bus, for example, he or she might then go on to avoid buses for fear that it will incite another attack. If another attack occurs during a pep rally at school, while taking the dog for a walk, or at the county fair, those places will go on the “to be avoided” list in your teen’s mind. It becomes a matter of being fearful of fear, which turns into a fear of specific places and situations. If your teen begins to isolate him- or herself, this can lead to depression.
What to Do If You Suspect Your Teen Has Panic Disorder
The first time your teen has a panic attack, you might panic yourself, if you’re not aware of what’s happening. It’s very scary to see someone have a panic attack if you’ve never seen one before. The first thing you should do is take your teen to his or her doctor for a checkup to rule out any medical conditions that have symptoms similar to anxiety disorder. Sometimes, families end up in the emergency room during an attack. This is okay, too, particularly if your teen is complaining of chest pain or seems to have trouble breathing. Once he or she has been cleared physically, the doctor will likely diagnose anxiety or a panic disorder.
From there, you’ll likely be referred to a mental health counselor. He or she will work with your teen and teach them strategies to get through panic attacks and, hopefully, reduce their frequency and duration. If there is something else going on, such as OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, or depression, those needs will be addressed, too. In some cases, your teen will be offered medication. Talk to the mental health professional about the pros and cons of anti-anxiety medications and “rescue” medicines, like tranquilizers. Some are addictive and all have some potential side effects, so tread carefully and choose what will work best for your teen’s unique situation.
Managing a Panic Attack
During an attack, take the following steps to help support your teen.
- First, remember to stay calm yourself.
- Remind your teen that it’s nothing that will hurt them and that it will pass in a few minutes.
- Encourage them to sit or lie down and to try to breathe slowly through their nose.
- Play some relaxing music or a meditation audio file to give him or her something else to focus on.
- Use mindfulness exercises. For example, ask your teen to think of things that they can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. This can get your child to focus on something other than the scary symptoms and help it to pass more quickly.
To help prevent agoraphobia, it’s helpful to come up with a plan for what your teen will do if he or she is out in public when an attack occurs. Just knowing that they can deal with it if it happens can reduce stress and even reduce the likelihood that a panic attack will happen. Some tips might be to find a place to sit down, focus on breathing, and use calming mental imagery until the feeling passes. You can see if your teen wants to put some specific music that has a calming effect on his or her phone so it’s always at hand.
While your teen might have panic disorder for a lifetime, knowing how to cope with panic attacks can take away their power and make it less likely to cause a significant impact. Also, as he or she learns how to relax through the attack, they can become less frequent and severe. Work with your teen’s mental health professional to learn how to best support your child through this condition.