Anxiety is a natural human emotion. Everyone feels anxiety at some point in their lives. Anxiety arises from various causes, including certain events, people, or situations that lead to worry, concern, or discomfort about what the future holds. There are many examples of day-to-day, anxiety-producing events. These may include changing schools, starting a new job, going to a job interview, getting married, having a baby, and many others. In most cases, feelings of anxiety subside soon after the event is over.
However, feelings of intense anxiety turn to terror and become so overwhelming that they lead to panic attacks in other cases. When a teen struggles with an anxiety disorder, they experience overwhelming, persistent, and excessive feelings of worry or fear about everyday situations. More often than not, the symptoms are impossible to control and out of proportion to the actual danger that may occur. They can lead someone to actively avoid people, places, or events (including school, friends, and activities) that may bring about anxious feelings. Some people look to dull the feelings of anxiety through self-medication. When they experience worry or fear, or even panic, they reach for alcohol to help bring about a sense of calm and relaxation. Unfortunately, using alcohol to manage anxiety symptoms leads to a range of additional problems, including the physical and psychological impacts of a substance use disorder or alcohol addiction.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders lists diagnostic criteria used by mental health providers to diagnose anxiety disorders. While there are several possible diagnoses, five specific types are more common among the population than others. One such diagnosis is panic disorder.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorders are a type of anxiety disorder characterized by repeated and often unexpected episodes of overwhelming fear. Fear is accompanied by a range of physical challenges, including racing heart, difficulty breathing, stomach problems, and others. The above symptoms describe the physical impacts of a panic attack, a primary symptom of panic disorders. Depending on the severity of the attack, a panic attack can be overwhelmingly frightening. Some people experience symptoms so intense that they feel “out of control” and may believe they are having a heart attack or perhaps even dying.
What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
When your teen experiences a panic attack, the symptoms often begin suddenly, with little warning or apparent cause. Unfortunately, because they can occur at any time, they may happen under potentially dangerous circumstances such as driving a car. They can also occur in very benign settings such as when you are sleeping, shopping, getting a cup of coffee, or sitting in a classroom.
Panic attacks are not all created equally. In fact, they can range in severity from mild to incapacitating. For most, symptoms will begin and subside in a matter of minutes leaving you feeling exhausted. Although the severity of symptoms will differ, panic attacks often include a range of symptoms including fear of death, rapid or pounding heart, trembling, sweating, sense of impending doom, difficulty breathing, nausea, chills, stomach pains, chest pain, dizziness, headache, numbness (in the extremities) and detachment. Many people feel as though they are losing control over their body and mind.
What Causes a Panic Attack?
It can be challenging to prevent panic attacks, especially if you struggle with a panic disorder or have no idea what the underlying cause of the attacks may be. However, understanding some of the potential causes of panic attacks may help you recognize potential symptoms or triggers that may trigger a panic attack. Currently, research has not found a precise cause for panic attacks; however, there are certain potentially contributing factors that may increase your risk of having one in the future. Many of these factors can be broken down into three unique categories including psychological, pharmacological (substance use), and environmental.
Psychological factors may include things as common as day-to-day stressors. Chronic stress or highly elevated stress levels can lead to higher levels of anxiety. Depending on your ability to manage stress, this can lead to a panic attack. This is especially true in someone who struggles with anxiety or with a panic disorder who is unable to successfully manage excessive levels of stress without experiencing adverse symptoms. Additionally, underlying mental health conditions may also be an increased risk factor. If you currently struggle with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may struggle with the ability to manage panic-related symptoms. Phobias are also a potential risk factor for panic attacks. Some people who have a known phobia may experience a panic attack when directly exposed to the object, situation, or circumstance they are afraid of.
Substance use and withdrawal can also lead to panic and anxiety. If you or a loved one struggled with an ongoing substance use disorder, a primary symptom of substance abuse can be heightened anxiety and panic. Additionally, withdrawing from some substances whether intentional or unintentional can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, fear, and panic. But panic attacks are not only attributed to illicit substances. Some people may also experience high levels of anxiety and panic from prescription medications. Unfortunately, some medications, although highly beneficial as part of a treatment plan, can contribute to an increased risk for panic attacks in some people.
Finally, there are several environmental (day-to-day events) factors that can contribute to panic attacks. Factors like chronic physical illness or significant life changes such as bereavement, loss of a relationship, and personal loss may all play a role. Additionally, happy factors such as preparing for graduation, trying out for a sports team, or taking their driver’s test can lead to excessive levels of anxiety in some teens.
Again, it is vital to note that developing a panic disorder or experiencing panic attacks is a highly individual experience. What causes panic in some people may not in others and therefore it is highly difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of panic disorders and panic attacks across the board. Understanding the potential causes panic attacks and panic disorders may help you predict an oncoming panic attack before it occurs. However, remember that many panic attacks can occur without warning and the symptoms come on quite rapidly. Therefore, regardless of the understanding of symptoms or potential risk factors, it may be highly difficult to predict what you do not see coming. What is most important is to note that if you are struggling with frequent panic attacks or experience a panic attack in general, it is important to reach out to your primary care provider or a mental health provider here at Beachside to help your teen learn how to manage their symptoms and potentially determine the root cause behind their panic experience.
Treating Panic Disorders and Panic Attacks
If your teen struggles with a panic disorder and frequent panic attacks, it can be highly debilitating. They may experience significant limitations on their day-to-day abilities to accomplish what most would consider simple, mundane tasks. For example, their panic may inhibit their ability to attend class regularly, participate in sports, have healthy relationships with peers, or participate in extracurricular activities at school including graduations, dances, or school plays. Depending on the severity of their panic, you may notice that your teen chooses to isolate themselves away from family and friends because being alone or in any safe space such as at home limits their exposure to potential panic triggers.
To date, research has not developed a cure for panic disorder. However, there are numerous treatment options available and symptoms are highly treatable. At a teen-focused treatment center like Beachside, panic disorder is generally treated using therapy, medication, or perhaps a combination of both. A member of our caring and compassionate treatment team will work with you and your family to determine the best treatment model to help meet your teen’s treatment needs and goals.
The most common type of therapy used is cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is considered a first-line treatment for panic disorders. The goal of CBT is to help your teen learn new ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling when they experience the emotions that often trigger a panic attack. CBT operates on the belief that the frequency of attacks, or all of the attacks, will begin to disappear once your teen better understands how to react in a safer, healthier way to the feelings that occur during a panic episode.
If determined safe and effective, your teen’s mental health team may also suggest different types of medication to help alleviate the severity of some panic disorder symptoms. This includes a combination of medications commonly used to treat depression as well as those used to control the physical symptoms of panic disorders including elevated heart rate. Like all medications, however, some of these may have undesirable side effects and therefore are not suitable for all treatment situations.
Regardless of the treatment model chosen, whether psychotherapy only, medication only, or a combination of both, it may take time for treatment to be effective. Either alone or together, therapy and medication can take some time to begin producing desired effects. In the meantime, your therapy provider will work with your teen to develop healthy, time-saving coping mechanisms to manage stress and panic symptoms as well as suggest healthy lifestyle changes that can help reduce the recurrence of panic attacks in the future. Common examples of these lifestyle changes include a healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep.
Although symptoms of panic disorders and panic attacks can be complex and difficult to manage without help or treatment, it is vital to note that these symptoms are indeed highly treatable. By choosing a teen-focused treatment center like Beachside where our caring and compassionate treatment staff understand the unique nature of panic disorders in teens and adolescents, your teen can soon be on the road to recovery. To learn more about our programs and how we can help you and your family put struggles with panic attacks in the past, reach out to our admissions team today.