Panic Disorder is an anxiety disorder with periods of intense anxiety that come and go. But one of the most challenging facets of Panic Disorder is the anxiety of not knowing when the next panic attack will happen. If you are a parent with a teen who has been diagnosed with Panic Disorder, you might wonder how to help your child, especially in those extreme moments of panic. This article will provide you with detailed instructions on how to support your teen before, during, and after a panic attack.
As a parent, you know the many symptoms your teen experiences when they have a panic attack. Panic attacks are a sudden attack of fear, which is often accompanied by a feeling of being out of control. Panic attacks usually come with the following symptoms:
- a pounding heart
- sense of terror
- chest pains
- breathing difficulties
- having chills
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 2.3% of 13 to 18 year olds have been diagnosed with Panic Disorder. Sadly, teens who suffer from this disorder also tend to experience other mental illnesses, such as depression, addiction, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Some teens with panic disorder might also experience suicidal thoughts.
If you want to support your teen, here are some tips to consider for helping your teen before, during, and after an attack.
Before a Panic Attack
Even before an attack happens, you and your teen can work together to reduce the frequency and number of attacks your teen has. For instance, educating yourself on Panic Disorder as well as practicing relaxation techniques can be two great preventative measures.
Educate yourself. You and your teen together might take some time to read about Panic Disorder. In fact, you might learn as much as you can about the illness. When you do this, you may begin to understand what’s going on and you may experience insights and what you need to do to heal. This can be incredibly empowering and even help reduce the anxiety. Typically, when someone goes to a mental health professional, they essentially put their lives in their hands. However, when you learn about what’s going on for yourself, you get a sense of what your unique needs are to grow and heal.
For instance, one important fact about Panic Disorder is that the illness stems from the “fight or flight” system going awry. The “fight or flight” system is normally a healthy physiological response for survival. It’s like a fire alarm, letting you know you’re in danger. The problem with Panic Disorder is that the alarm system is going off when it doesn’t need to. Teens who experience a panic attack often feel terribly afraid, yet, what’s essential to know is that even though the alarm system is loud and unpleasant, by itself it is never dangerous. And once you realize that that no part of the panic response (alarm) is ever harmful or dangerous, the fear of panic begins to subside. And as a result, the fear will loosen its grip on you.
If you’d like to further education yourself, here are some books on the illness:
- Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic: Workbook by David Barlow and Michelle Craske
- Overcoming Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia by Elke Zuercher-White
- Panic Attacks Workbook (2004) by David Carbonell
Practice relaxation techniques. Experiencing panic attacks on a regular basis as well as fearing the next attack means that you’re experiencing anxiety much of the time. A great way to not only help reduce your anxiety but also prevent attacks from happening is to learn to relax. This means making it a practice to relax every day. Typically, people relax after a long day or when they feel stressed. And these are good times to practice. However, for someone experience a high degree of anxiety, a state of relaxation needs to be more commonplace than anxiety. Relaxation needs to be the cornerstone of your teen’s life.
There are many ways to relax. But the best way to become familiar with relaxation is to choose one method or technique and stick with it. Practice one technique on a daily basis so that your mind and body really experience relaxation on a deep level. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation – when practiced regularly – are ways to lower your overall experience of anxiety and help prevent attacks before they start.
See if you can identify when a panic attack is about to occur. Although it might be challenging, you or your teen might be able to identify signs that an attack is imminent. For instance, perhaps you notice that you have an attack whenever you fear that you’re going to fail an exam or a class in school. Some people might experience an attack right before falling down. The point is that if you or your teen can identify an oncoming attack, you can take steps to avoid it. For instance, you can stop what you’re doing and breathe. Or you can go somewhere to avoid embarrassment that might come from having an attack in public. Over time, as you practice relaxation, learn about the illness, you’ll uncover more and more signs that an attack is coming – and in turn – you can stop it before it arrives.
During a Panic Attack
When an attack does happen, there are things that you and your teen can do here too. Part of what keeps an attack continuing is the thoughts and feelings of fear. But anything that you can do to relax, change your thoughts, or remove yourself from the trigger will help the attack go away. Here are some tips to consider:
- Have your teen focus on their breathing. Once your teen starts to feel the anxiety of an imminent attack, have them take long, slow, and deep breaths. In fact, you can remind your teen to take long and deep breaths regularly throughout the day. Encourage your teen to inhale and exhale to the count of four seconds. This extended breathing does two things. It relaxes the body and it directs your teen’s attention away from anxious thoughts. In fact, just like the regular practice of relaxation, regular deep breathing is incredibly helpful. And with a practice, your teen will better remember to turn to breathing when in the middle of an attack.
- Recite a prayer, mantra, or even the alphabet in your mind. Another way to help your teen take their mind off the anxious thoughts is to recite something- anything. It can be the alphabet, a childhood song, a prayer, or counting to ten. It doesn’t matter as long as the mind shifts its attention. Often, it is a thought that can begin the attack in the first place. If your teen continues to dwell on that thought, the anxiety might only get worse.
- Change your environment. At the onset of an attack, encourage your teen to change the environment they’re in. Often, it is something in the surroundings that is causing an anxiety attack – a person, a noise, or a place. Eliminate the anxiety trigger as best you can. Furthermore, if your teen can go to a relaxing, or at least a familiar place, this will help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
After a Panic Attack
Once an attack is over, learn from it. In fact, each attack you have provides information about how to end them. Here are some tips for using attacks to heal versus letting them bring your teen down:
- Become more aware of any patterns associated with your panic attacks. Attacks, as mentioned above, start off with a trigger. If you can become more and more aware of what’s triggering them, you can help prevent them. One way to be equipped with noticing patterns is to keep a journal. Write down when your teen had an attack and what you suspect may have been the trigger. Or you might have your teen keep the journal and the two of you discuss it on a regular basis. As you continue to observe the attacks, you may become more and more aware of what triggers them.
- Uncover the purpose of the attack. Psychotherapists Laurel Hulley and Bruce Ecker have found that the most effective treatment for an attack is finding the purpose behind it. They believe that once someone directly experiences and accepts this previously unrecognized purpose; there is an opening in which insight can be experienced, often eliminating symptoms of panic. For instance, someone might be unconsciously having panic attacks because they believe that life includes bad experiences. By having a panic attack they fulfill that faulty thinking. It may sound silly, but sometimes unconscious thinking and beliefs can spur behavior and experiences. In order to help uncover the purpose behind attacks, psychotherapy may be needed.
- Talk to a mental health professional. If you feel that your panic attacks and your pre-attack anxiety are too much for you to handle, talk to an adult you trust so that he or she can connect you with a mental health professional.
Treatment for Panic Disorder
Treatment for Panic Disorder often includes medication to help reduce the anxiety as well as psychotherapy. Fortunately, teens who suffer from Panic Disorder and other disorders can be treated and they can experience a panic-free life. Contact a mental health professional to learn more about how your teen might benefit from Panic Disorder Treatment.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.