Dealing With Teen Panic Disorders - A Therapeutic Approach

Table of Contents

Teen Panic Disorders Treatment Options & Family Solutions

This Article Guides on the Following Issues:

  • What panic disorder is
  • The types of panic disorders
  • Causes of panic disorders
  • Diagnosis and treatment of teen panic disorders
  • How parents and family members can support teens with panic disorders

Panic disorders among teenagers are increasingly becoming prevalent, leaving many parents unsure of how to provide the support their child desperately needs. Seeing your child overwhelmed with panic, fear, and confusion, even in seemingly safe environments, is heartbreaking. A parent’s natural instinct is to help calm their child in such a situation, but they may make the situation worse without knowing how to go about it.

Teen panic disorder treatment is required when frequent panic attacks, interference with daily life, anxiety and worry, severe physical symptoms, avoidance behaviors, emotional distress, and impact on relationships are present. When it comes to treating panic disorder in teenagers, various options are available to alleviate symptoms and improve overall well-being. Key Healthcare treatment approaches typically involve a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle modifications. It’s important to note that each individual’s panic disorder treatment plan may vary based on their specific needs and the severity of their symptoms.

Through this blog, we help parents to dive deeper into the reality of teen panic disorders, giving them details of what it is, its causes, and, most importantly, different treatment options to help you and your teen overcome panic disorder conditions.

Definition of Teen Panic Disorders

Panic disorder is a condition characterized by sudden and unexpected episodes of intense fear and anxiety in teenagers accompanied by physical symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping

Panic is normally triggered when adrenaline is activated in the brain for a fight-or-flight response in the face of danger. It is our body’s natural defense mechanism for survival. Unfortunately, teenagers who have panic disorders experience these symptoms without any valid risk or danger. They constantly fear when the next attack will happen and may avoid places or situations where they experience panic attacks.

Even though the symptoms are not life-threatening, panic disorders affect a teenager’s quality of life. But, the good news is that with the right treatment approach, the overall symptoms of panic disorders can be significantly reduced for the teen to live a normal, fulfilling life.

Types of Panic Disorders

Panic attacks usually vary in intensity and frequency but can be classified into two main types depending on what prompts the attack. They are:

  • Expected panic attacks
  • Unexpected panic attacks

Expected Panic Attacks

Expected panic attacks are linked to specific triggers, and when someone is exposed to such triggers, a panic attack follows. For example, if your teenager is claustrophobic (fear of enclosed spaces), they may expect a panic attack when in enclosed places like elevators or small rooms. Likewise, if a teenager is afraid of crowds, they are more likely to get a panic attack when in a large gathering.

Expected panic attacks may be classified as situationally cued or predisposed. A situationally cued panic attack occurs when a teenager is exposed to situations that may have caused them to panic before. For example, when a teenager returns to a park where a dog previously attacked them, a panic attack may occur the moment they enter the park.

Predisposed panic attacks differ from situationally cued attacks because they can occur before, during, or after exposure to the triggers. A good example is a teenager preparing to attend an important social event. They may experience a panic attack the night before the event, during, and long after the event is over.

Teenagers with general types of anxiety commonly experience expected panic attacks.

Unexpected Panic Attacks

Unexpected panic attacks are those with no specific triggers and may seem to happen for no apparent reason. The attacks occur in seemingly safe situations, such as sleeping, hanging around with friends, or just sitting at a favorite spot.

It is difficult finding out what exactly causes the attacks, but this does not mean that it does not exist. Panics are usually triggered subconsciously when the brain picks out cues from a previous situation that caused fear.

For example, listening to music may subconsciously trigger a panic because a specific song was playing in the background during a past traumatic event. It may be near impossible to specifically point out the song as the trigger of the panic.

Causes of Panic Disorders in Teens

Several factors contribute to the development of panic disorders in teenagers. Understanding these causes is crucial in developing a therapeutic approach to deal with teen panic disorders effectively.

Genetics

Genetics plays a role in the development of panic disorders in teens. Research suggests that there is a hereditary component to anxiety disorders, including panic disorders. Teenagers from families with a history of panic disorders are more likely to develop the symptoms. Specific genes may increase the vulnerability of certain teenagers by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain involved in panic responses.

Environmental Factors

Various environmental factors can contribute to the development of panic disorders in teenagers. These are external factors or experiences in which a teen grows up. A teen who grows up around physical or emotional abuse may experience unexpected panic attacks. A chaotic and stressful family environment is more likely to predispose teens to panic disorders. Other external environmental factors include witnessing violence or experiencing a significant life event like the death of a loved one. Substance abuse, particularly the use of drugs or alcohol, can also contribute to the onset or worsening of panic symptoms in teenagers.

Stress

Stress is also a common cause of panic disorders for both teenagers and adults. Adolescence is a period of development that comes with a lot of pressure from all aspects of life. For instance, there are high demands for academic performance from schools and peer pressure to be in relationships, which can be overwhelming for some teenagers. When stress levels become excessive, it can lead to the development of panic disorders. Stressful life events, such as moving to a new school or parental divorce, can also increase the likelihood of panic disorder development.

Changes in Brain Function

Adolescence is a critical period for brain development, and changes in brain function can significantly contribute to developing panic disorders. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions (amygdala and prefrontal cortex) undergo significant changes during adolescence. The changes in these parts may affect neurotransmitters in the brain that can contribute to panic disorders.

Diagnosis of Teen Panic Disorders

Diagnosing teen panic disorders involves a comprehensive evaluation that considers various assessment criteria. It is conducted by mental health professionals like psychiatrists or psychologists who rely on standardized guidelines like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the most recent standard for diagnosing common mental health disorders.

Diagnostic Criteria for Panic Disorders

The DSM-5 contains specific criteria that mental health experts check for diagnosing panic disorders. The checklist includes the following:

  • Recurrent panic attacks- An isolated incident of a panic attack does not qualify as a panic disorder. There must be recurrent episodes of intense fear accompanied by symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness.
  • Persistent concern or worry about future panic attacks- The unexpected and recurrent nature of the attacks make the teenager greatly concerned about when they will occur, affecting the quality of a teenager’s life.
  • Significant behavior changes- Because of the unexpected nature of the attacks, the teenager may avoid places where panic attacks have occurred or are likely to occur. This affects the teenager’s social life and may turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms like drugs and substance abuse.
  • Duration and effect on the quality of life- The symptoms of panic attacks occur for at least one month and significantly impair various areas of the teenager’s life, such as academic performance, social interactions, or daily functioning.

Assessment and Evaluation for Panic Disorders in Teens

Assessing teenagers for possible panic disorders may involve the following steps.

  • Clinical interviews- Mental health professionals have one-on-one sessions with teenagers to gather information about their symptoms and factors contributing to panic attacks.
  • Questionnaires- The teenager may be asked to complete questionnaires designed to assess the severity of panic symptoms and the impact of panic attacks on their daily life.
  • Inquiries from other close people- The mental health professional may gather information from parents, teachers, or other relevant people who have observed the teenager’s behavior and symptoms. This helps get a better and wholesome understanding of the teenager’s condition.
  • Collaboration with other healthcare providers– In some cases, the mental health professional may collaborate with other healthcare providers to rule out any underlying medical conditions contributing to the panic symptoms.

Traditional Options To Treating Teen Panic Disorders

Traditional treatments and standard forms of therapy have been proven effective and are utilized by many mental health professionals to treat common teen mental health disorders. These treatment methods have also been proven effective in treating panic disorders, including cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy for teens is a goal-oriented, evidence-based therapy that identifies negative thought patterns contributing to a teenager’s panic attacks. It is based on the premise that thought patterns are usually interconnected with behaviors and that changing negative thoughts can lead to positive behavioral changes.

During the therapy sessions, therapists explain to teenagers the nature of their conditions and the psychological aspects of panic attacks. They help teenagers recognize the negative and irrational thoughts contributing to panic attacks. They are then taught how to counter irrational thoughts by replacing them with more realistic and positive ones, reducing anxiety levels.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy for panic disorders involves exposing teenagers to situations or things that trigger panic attacks. The exposure is done in a safe, controlled, and supportive environment, and after long periods of exposure, the teenager gets used to it and overcomes anxiety in those instances.

It is based on the principle that the longer a person is exposed to fear, they will eventually find it exaggerated. This reduces anxiety symptoms and will reduce avoidance mechanisms used by many teenagers with panic disorders.

Exposure therapy must follow specific steps to avoid worsening panic attacks. The first step is identifying and assessing the fear. This is done by listing the fears according to how they induce anxiety, from the highest to the least fear-inducing anxiety. The next step would be gradually exposing the teenager to the least fear. This is done in a safe and controlled environment where the therapist can guide the teenager in dealing with the situation. As the teenager becomes more comfortable and confident in facing their least fears, they are gradually exposed to greater fears. This progression helps them build resilience as they continue with the exposure therapy.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

DBT for teens is a type of psychotherapy used to help people with intense emotions. Although initially developed to treat people with borderline personality disorders and antisocial personality disorder it has proved effective in treating many mental health disorders, including panic disorders.

DBT combines elements of CBT to help teenagers learn to manage their emotions and relationships through mindfulness, improving interpersonal skills, and developing strategies for coping with distressing situations. The key aspects of DBT are:

  • Mindfulness- Teaches teenagers how to live in the moment and appreciate it. It encourages acceptance of one’s thoughts and typically involves mindfulness exercises like meditation and focused breathing. These exercises help teenagers become more aware of their emotions and have a sense of control over their anxiety.
  • Emotional regulation- Panic disorders involve intense emotions, and DBT helps understand and regulate their emotions by teaching them healthy stress coping mechanisms.
  • Distress tolerance- Panic attacks may be overwhelming for teenagers, so DBT teaches them how to tolerate the feelings and symptoms and avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms such as avoidance.

Holistic Therapeutic Treatment Options

Holistic therapeutic approaches are forms of therapy that consider all aspects of a teenager’s health, including their mental, physical, and emotional health, rather than focusing only on the condition’s symptoms. Although these methods are not considered the standard treatment, they have also proved to help reduce the symptoms of panic attacks. Holistic therapeutic approaches include mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga and meditation, and teen art therapy. Holistic approaches can be utilized to complement other traditional evidence-based therapeutic approaches.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness-based stress reduction involves mental practices that direct a teenager’s attention to the present moment without being too judgmental. Regular mindfulness practices help teenagers become aware of their thoughts and teach them how to respond to anxiety and panic.

Yoga and Meditation

Yoga and meditation are practices that have gained a lot of traction in recent years, understandably so, because of their effectiveness in relieving stress and improving the overall quality of life. They can also be valuable for teenagers with panic disorders by helping them relax, develop body awareness, and manage anxiety.

Yoga incorporates physical postures with breathing exercises that keep a person relaxed. Teen yoga therapy promotes physical relaxation and the release of tension in the body, helping teenagers with panic disorders manage the symptoms. Meditation involves the practice of focusing the mind and maintaining a state of relaxed and alert awareness. It can reduce panic disorder symptoms among teenagers by reducing negative intrusive thoughts and helping them control their emotions.

Art Therapy

Art can also be utilized as therapy to help teenagers overcome symptoms of panic disorders. Art therapists use various art forms, such as drawing and painting, to help teenagers explore their feelings, emotions, and fears. Art therapy helps them interpret complex feelings and experiences through simple art forms, making them self-aware of their emotions. Engaging in art is a soothing experience that helps teenagers feel relaxed and reduce stress. This reduces the occurrence of panic attacks.

Teenage Residential Treatment

Key Healthcare is a premier teen treatment center that offers tried-and-tested treatment options for teenagers with mental and behavioral issues. One of the key programs offered is the Teen Residential Treatment program, which helps teenagers with serious mental health conditions like acute panic disorders. It is an intensive 40-60 day program where teenagers undergo inpatient treatment. It is especially useful when the condition can no longer be effectively treated in an outpatient setting.

Highly trained professionals are available round-the-clock to ensure each teenager gets the best-individualized treatment. The residential centers offer a safe and structured environment to help teenagers focus on their recovery. If you are a concerned parent, contact us to speak with one of our experts.

Parental and Family Support

Witnessing a teen experiencing frequent attacks makes parents and family members feel helpless and heartbroken because there is little you can do at that particular moment. Parents and family members play a crucial role in supporting teenagers with panic disorders. They can help the teen relax during panic attacks and build a support system that provides a nurturing and understanding environment that helps them feel supported and validated. Here are some ways parents and family members can support teens with panic disorders during the attack and by building a support system.

Supporting Teenagers During the Panic Attacks

When a teen is experiencing a panic attack, family members, especially parents, can help the teen in the following ways.

Label the Panic Attack

Sometimes when teenagers experience panic attacks, they may not be aware of what is happening. They may feel like they are having a heart attack or going to die, which worsens the symptoms. Parents can help them by letting them know they are just having a panic attack and not in danger. Remind them that although the attacks are uncomfortable, they are not dangerous and will eventually pass. This will help calm them and prevent the symptoms from spiraling out of control.

Be Present

Although you may not always be with your teen when panic attacks occur, try to be physically present as much as possible when they occur. Physical presence offers comfort and a sense of security in the face of perceived danger. Once you notice the signs of a panic attack in your teen, like shortness of breath and trembling, sit with them to support them through the panic attacks. This can help them endure the symptoms and get better.

Practicing grounding behaviors

Grounding behaviors are practices that help a person detach from an emotional struggle like anxiety and panic. It is a distraction that shifts attention from difficult emotions to other activities. Grounding behaviors help manage panic attacks by realizing they are not in danger.

Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method, which involves working backward from 5 to identify things teenagers can notice with their senses. Ask them to point out 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. This shifts their attention from the attacks and signals to the body that there is no actual threat. Other grounding techniques like breathing into a paper bag, squeezing an ice cube, and rubbing their hands can also help reduce their panic.

Building a Support System

Parents and family members should create a support system by creating a safe, nurturing environment that helps teenagers manage panic disorders. This can be achieved in the following ways.

Educating themselves on panic disorders

Parents and family members should educate themselves about panic disorders, including their symptoms, causes, and treatment options. Understanding the nature of panic disorders can help them respond better.

Encouraging open communication

Parents and family members should encourage open, non-judgmental communication encouraging teenagers to express their fears and feelings without being invalidated. For further guidance, check out our guide on how to communicate with your teenager.

Reduce family stressors

Family dynamics may contribute to or even cause panic disorders. Minimize unnecessary stressors within the family environment that may contribute to panic attacks. Encourage peaceful resolution of conflicts among family members.

Assisting with treatment plans

Collaborate with the teenager’s healthcare provider to find out how you can help implement the treatment plans. This may include helping the teenager establish a routine and reminding them to take their medication when necessary.

Encourage Self-Care

Self-care practices are also forms of distraction and can help keep the teenager relaxed. Encourage them to engage in activities they enjoy, like hobbies and relaxation exercises. This helps them manage their symptoms and improves their overall well-being.

Medication for Teen Panic Disorders

Apart from therapy, some medications may also be used alongside therapy to help treat panic disorders. Such medications aim to reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Medications must be prescribed and monitored by qualified mental health professionals. The following are some medications used to treat panic disorders.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs are a class of antidepressant medications that can also be prescribed to reduce symptoms of panic disorders. They work by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin, also commonly known as the feel-good hormone, is one of the brain’s most crucial neurotransmitters because it helps a person feel relaxed. SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain by reducing the rate at which it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Examples of commonly prescribed SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft).

Benzodiazepines

The FDA has approved benzodiazepines for the treatment of panic disorders. They may be prescribed for the short-term management of panic disorder symptoms, including acute anxiety and panic attacks. They work by increasing another neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which calms the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines are prescribed for only the short term because of the potential dependence on them and withdrawal symptoms after long-term use. Examples of benzodiazepines include Alprazolam (Xanax) and Clonazepam (Klonopin).

Conclusion

Teen panic disorder is a complex condition that requires a comprehensive understanding of the types, signs, and causes of panic disorders. Understanding all these aspects can provide valuable insights into the correct treatment approach. Treatment may combine traditional therapeutic approaches, holistic therapeutic approaches, and in some instances, medications. Treatment requires a collaborative approach between the teenager, family members, and healthcare providers. Parents play a vital role, and creating a supportive environment that helps teenagers manage panic attacks is important.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do panic disorders affect academic performance?

Panic disorders can affect a teenager’s academic performance in many ways. Panic disorders cause difficulty concentrating in class because of racing thoughts and physical symptoms that distract them. Panic disorders can also cause test anxiety, making teenagers fail their tests even though they have prepared and read well enough. It can also lead to avoidance behaviors in which teenagers avoid situations that can cause anxiety, like class presentations and participating in discussions.

What lifestyle changes or coping strategies can help manage symptoms of panic disorder in teens outside of therapy sessions?

You can encourage your teen to adopt healthy lifestyles by engaging in regular physical exercises like walking, swimming, and dancing. These exercises release endorphins which help reduce stress. Other lifestyle changes may be encouraging healthy sleeping habits, eating healthy balanced diets, and journaling.

How can a therapist work with a teenager to develop a personalized treatment plan for their panic disorder?

A therapist can work collaboratively with a teen by encouraging the teenager to share their experiences and helping them identify their triggers. Therapists also need to know a teenager’s interests, cultural background, and social life to know how best they can help the teenager and develop a treatment approach that suits their needs.

What role does nutrition play in managing panic disorders?

Eating a well-balanced diet that contains all the necessary nutrients can improve overall physical and mental health. Eating a delicious healthy meal can help improve moods, which can reduce the symptoms of panic disorders.

What are the long-term effects of untreated panic disorders in teens?

Untreated panic disorders can significantly impair the quality of life. Panic attacks are uncomfortable and may lead to avoidance behaviors and social withdrawal. This can make teenagers miss out on important opportunities. It can also impact their academic life and make them miss on desired career objectives.

Can pets help alleviate panic disorder symptoms?

Pets can alleviate panic disorder symptoms by providing emotional support, a sense of comfort, and security. They can also be a distraction from stressful activities and provide an opportunity for social interactions with other pet owners.

What should I do if my teen refuses therapy for panic disorders?

The first step would be understanding and validating their feelings because they may have their reasons why they are against it. You should address their concerns, educate them on the importance of therapy, and clear any myths and misconceptions about it. You can also consider gradually exposing them to therapeutic concepts in informal settings. Most importantly, you should create and maintain a supportive environment whether or not they accept therapy.

Can journaling help manage panic disorders in teens?

Journaling can help teens manage panic disorders by providing a private space where they can express their thoughts and emotions. Writing down their fears and emotions can help them identify their triggers which can be useful in developing strategies to overcome the fears.

Are panic disorders in teens treated differently than panic disorders in adults?

Treatment of panic disorders for teens and adults and teens are similar in many ways, but there are also unique things during teen treatment that makes them different. Teen treatment considers teenagers’ development stage, which involves many physical and emotional changes considered in the treatment. Teen treatment also has to consider the educational needs of teenagers because they are still in school. Treatment may include consulting teachers and classmates to know more about their behavior. Schoolwork must also be considered for residential treatment so that they do not miss schoolwork when away during treatment. Another difference is that teen treatment has more family involvement, and most parents make decisions on behalf of the teenager, including what treatment option to choose. Adults are at liberty to decide which option they are going to take.

Can parents cause panic disorders in their teens?

Although parents do not directly cause panic disorders, there are certain things that parents might have done to contribute to developing panic disorders. Parenting styles and family dynamics can contribute to developing panic disorders. Stressful family environments, child neglect, negative parenting attitudes, and traumatic events can contribute to and increase the possibility of developing panic disorders.

Can panic disorders in teens lead to other mental health disorders?

Panic disorders can contribute to other mental health disorders like depression, agoraphobia, adolescent social anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder in teens (PTSD), and substance abuse.