Panic attacks can be extremely frightening. Often they arrive out of the blue, leaving you feeling helpless and out of control. You may even have a sense of impending doom or fear you will go crazy. Trembling, sweating, racing heart, shortness of breath, feeling sick to your stomach, feeling dizzy or faint and a feeling of “unreality” are some of the symptoms of panic attacks. Attacks usually last around 10 minutes, but leave you with a lingering fear that they can happen again, and often do.
Panic attacks are common in teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 and 25, are more common in girls, and are experienced by about 10 percent of the population. The causes are unclear, but they tend to occur when there are big changes going on in your life. They sometimes occur after a traumatic experience. They could also be due to an imbalance of brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenalin. Children who experience anxiety are more likely to have panic attacks as adolescents and adults.
Attacks can be triggered by alcohol, caffeine, diets causing unstable blood sugar or allergies, breathing problems and street and prescription drugs.
What Will Help?
There are treatments for panic attacks. Psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you change your thought patterns. Often fear breeds more fear until a vicious cycle seems to take over. Much of the fear is irrational. You will not suffocate or have a heart attack. Sometimes “exposure therapy” is used to desensitize you to the fear. Learning how to relax and meditate can help reduce anxiety. Assertiveness training can help you take charge and be more in control of your life. Panic can also be treated with medication, usually antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. It’s important to seek help if panic is becoming a problem, because it is easier treated earlier than later.
Advice for Teens
As a teenager with panic attacks, it’s useful to have some facts to help fight them. Panic attacks are the body’s “flight-freeze-fight” response, a helpful response when we have to fight off danger, but sometimes our body reacts when there’s no real danger. Thought they are scary, panic attacks are harmless. They are brief, usually over in 10 to 15 minutes. Most others cannot tell you are having an attack. You are not alone–many others have them.
It’s useful to learn how to calm your breathing by taking slow, regular breaths through your nose. Because we breathe faster when we are anxious, this can make us dizzy and even more anxious. By slowing down the breathing, anxiety is reduced. Learning how to tense and then relax various muscle groups is also helpful. Maybe even imagine that you are a “rag doll” with loose and limp muscles.
Sometimes people have very unrealistic fears about what will happen during a panic attack–such as passing out, or being embarrassed and laughed at. These thoughts can actually bring on attacks. You need to understand these occurrences are very unlikely. Ask yourself how many times your worst fears have actually come true. Anticipate what you might do if you had a panic attack in class. You could always leave and go to the bathroom and avoid feeling the embarrassment you fear.
People with panic attacks are usually senstive to their body’s physical sensations. In order to overcome panic, you need to bring on the sensations you fear, such as increased heart rate, stomachache or chest pain, so that in time these feelings will no longer make you anxious. Running, holding your breath, shaking your head from side to side, can bring on these sensations so you can get used to them and see that they don’t hurt you.
If you have had a panic attack in a certain place or situation, it’s easy to start avoiding it. It’s important to face your fears and re-enter the situation, starting with something that causes minimal anxiety and working up. Praise and reward yourself each time you face your fears.