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Panic Disorders in Teens

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Parts of the brain function as interpreters. For teens with a panic disorder, these interpreters don’t function properly. Normally, signals from the body are analyzed, and the brain comes up with a narrative that is used to make sense of those signals. It’s a valuable service that connects the subconscious and the conscious mind. But, these signals can be crossed when the subconscious mind sends out signals that make no sense at all.

Adolescents with panic disorder may experience a sudden onset of symptoms that the brain’s interpreters don’t understand. These debilitating episodes of panic keep teens from feeling comfortable in their own environments.

Fortunately, there are powerful therapy techniques that help teens return to a life free of panic disorder.

Panic Disorder in Teenagers

When the body faces a grave and serious threat, it responds with a variety of separate bodily systems. The responses prepare and help the person deal with the problem or run away. This fight-or-flight response can come in handy during a real emergency, as the person is immediately able to deal with the problem at hand. However, teens suffering from panic disorder feel flight-or-fight symptoms in response to no threat at all. The teen may be walking, sitting or even sleeping, and without warning, the body begins to indicate that something terrible is occurring. This is a panic attack.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Initial Signs

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teens with panic attacks may experience:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Intense fear
  • A sensation of impending death or destruction
  • Feelings of disassociation
  • Anxiety Issues

The episode may last between five and 10 minutes, and it can be incredibly confusing. As the teen feels these signals from the body, the brain may wrongly interpret the signals and indicate that the teen is dying or having a heart attack. These messages are often so frightening that they tend to drive the teen further into feelings of panic and unreality.

While many teens will experience a panic attack just once, and then never experience the feelings again. Teens with panic disorders may have panic attacks over and over again. Avoidance rarely makes the issue go away, however, and teens may find that there are simply no locations or scenarios that are free of panic attack risks. These teens may resist leaving the house altogether.

Treating Panic Disorder

Panic disorders rarely disappear on their own. And, if left untreated, panic attacks occur more frequently with more severe each time an attack takes place. Faced with a debilitating fear of another attack, some teens turn to alcohol or drugs. They may help to slow down their minds and feel strong enough to face the world once more.  Because panic disorders can be so debilitating,  they should not ever be ignored in the hopes the teen will “grow out” of them.

Risk Factors

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, panic disorders usually appear between the ages of 15 and 19. Experts aren’t sure why the brain is vulnerable to attacks at this age. It is known that the brain goes through a series of complex and sophisticated changes as adolescence progresses. These changes leave the brain vulnerable to panic disorders.

According to the American Psychological Association, teen panic disorder can also be linked to recent stresses or trauma.

Treatment Options

Panic disorder is successfully treated through the combination of therapy and sometimes, with medication. Teen panic disorder is considered the most responsive to treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The treatment focuses on helping the person unscramble the messages sent from the body and learn to interpret those messages properly without terror or fear.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Therapists often use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques to help teens overcome panic disorders.

CBT help teens learn to properly identify the signals sent by the body. And, with this pause and rational thought, the panicked feelings may slow or cease altogether.

For example, a teen with a racing heart might think, “I am having a heart attack.” Therefore, the therapist will encourage the teen to replace that statement with the more neutral statement. “I am having an anxious episode, and it will go away in just a few moments.”

Some therapists ask their patients to use journals during this exercise, as writing down their feelings and their replacement thoughts may further help the teen to calm down and think rationally. The body responds to this calm mind and it calms down too, and the episode is over.

Recovery from Teen Panic Disorder

Healing from panic disorders doesn’t happen overnight. Retraining the brain must be done slowly, to keep the teen from feeling overwhelmed. Some teens need therapy for many years to truly be able to cope with panic disorder.

However, most teens see fast improvements after receiving treatment. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that therapy could completely eliminate panic attacks. Or, at the very least, it helped significantly reduce the frequency with which they occurred.

Other Options

Panic disorders can sometimes go hand in hand with other mental illnesses, including:

Sometimes, people with multiple mental health issues need different types of therapy in order to gain control of their thoughts and keep a panic attack at bay. Other times, the panic disorders are so severe that the person simply cannot participate in therapy without feeling debilitating symptoms. These people may benefit from anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants, so they can amend the chemical imbalances they face and prepare to do the hard work required of therapy.

Treatment plans for panic disorders are designed to identify these additional issues, and provide meaningful help for those other problems that could cause panic. At Newport Academy, we can provide this sort of customized treatment plan to help your teen deal with a panic disorder, and any other mental illness that might lie beneath those feelings of panic. Please contact us today to find out more.