This month, most of us look forward to the spooky festivities and jump scares that come with Halloween. But for some adolescents and teens, extreme fear and anxiety are no fun at all. Instead, frequent and unwanted panic takes a significant toll on their mental health, daily functioning, and overall well-being.
Panic Attacks & Disorder
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by physical and emotional manifestations of fear? Do you start sweating? Does your heart race? Do you become lightheaded or dizzy and can’t catch your breath? During these episodes, do you think you are having a heart attack or might be dying?
These are signs that you may be having a panic attack. A panic attack is the brain reacting to a perceived threat. When we are in a life-threatening situation, our brains send our bodies into fight-or-flight mode. This triggers a big dump of adrenaline into the bloodstream, causing the signs and symptoms of panic. It is a natural response that is helpful and potentially life-saving when we are in actual danger because it prompts us to protect ourselves. With a panic attack, however, there is no real, imminent threat. It comes out of the blue and wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds for no logical reason, making the experience even scarier.
When these terrifying episodes are happening regularly and unpredictably, they can lead to panic disorder – where a person changes their behaviors and how they function because they are in constant fear of the next attack.
If this describes what you are going through, you are not alone. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “more than 3 million Americans will experience panic disorder during their lifetime. Panic disorder often begins during adolescence, although it may start during childhood, and sometimes runs in families.”
Coping with Panic
If you experience the signs and symptoms of panic disorder, your first step should be to talk to your parents, a trusted adult, or a counselor at school about being evaluated by a physician or mental health professional. Various treatment approaches may be recommended depending on the severity of your panic including medication, individual cognitive behavioral therapy, or group therapy.
But as you deal with panic, there are some key things to remember that will help you calm down more quickly:
- Although the symptoms of a panic attack are scary, it is important to understand that you are not in danger and that your body is just overreacting to feeling very anxious.
- Most panic attacks subside quickly. They tend to peak at around 10 minutes and usually fade away within 20 to 30 minutes. Keeping this in mind can help you ride out the discomfort.
- Learn your triggers. Identifying and being aware of your triggers will help you to remember that what is happening to you is just a panic attack, not a true emergency.
- At the same time, while you may be tempted to avoid the situations or circumstances that have triggered a panic attack in the past, you should make every effort not to. Even if going back to the place or situation where you had your panic attack is difficult, avoidance will only worsen your anxiety and increase the chances of having another panic attack.
You can also take specific steps that will help you experience panic attacks less frequently or cope with them when they are happening:
- Research self-care and stress management strategies that you can practice regularly to help ease anxiety. Check out my previous article for tips.
- Look for tools. There are a number of helpful apps for managing anxiety. Check out these recommendations from the ChildHelp organization.
When you feel a panic attack coming on:
- Take deep breaths. Try to breathe slowly and deeply, concentrating on each breath. Slowing down your breathing may ease your feeling of panic.
- Picture your happy place. A person’s happy place should be somewhere they would feel most relaxed. When an attack begins, it can help to close your eyes and imagine being in this place and feeling the calm that you experience when you are there.
- Tap into your senses. Experts recommend focusing on a soothing scent like lavender, squeezing an ice cube, taking a hot shower, or concentrating on a specific object to help you get grounded. Focusing on one stimulus can reduce the other uncomfortable stimuli.
- Find a quiet spot. Sights and sounds can often intensify a panic attack. Sitting in a quiet place will make it easier to focus on breathing and other coping strategies.
- Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This is another grounding technique, that can help direct your focus away from the source of your stress. This article in Medical News Today guides you through the technique:
“Complete each of the following steps slowly and thoroughly:
- Look at 5 separate objects. Think about each one for a short while.
- Listen for 4 distinct sounds. Think about where they came from and what sets them apart.
- Touch 3 objects. Consider their texture, temperature, and what their uses are.
- Identify 2 different smells. This could be the smell of your coffee, your soap, or the laundry detergent on your clothes.
- Name 1 thing you can taste. Notice whatever taste is in your mouth, or try tasting a piece of candy.”
- Repeat a mantra. A mantra is a word, phrase, or sound that helps with focus and provides strength. For example, you could repeat “I’ll be okay” or “This will pass.” As you focus on gently repeating the mantra, your physical responses will slow. This will help you to regulate your breathing and relax your muscles.
- Walk it off. Moving around releases hormones called endorphins that relax the body and improve mood, the regular motion of walking can also help regulate your breathing.
Panic is scary and painful, but there is much that you can do to alleviate what happens to your body and mind. If you are struggling with panic, I am here to help. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.