Panic attacks are scary to experience and scary to observe.
Far more extreme than feeling “panicky,” an actual panic attack is when someone experiences sudden, intense physical symptoms. Thes might include:
- racing heart
- shortness of breath
The individual interprets these symptoms to mean something is terribly wrong. People often believe they’re dying, or “going crazy.” It is not uncommon for people to go to the emergency room for fear they are having a heart attack, or another medical emergency.
What causes panic attacks in teens?
About one-third of people experience a panic attack during their lifetime that involves physical and mental symptoms. Sometimes these “attacks” turn into repeated events caused by a mental health condition named panic disorder.
A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by sudden, severe panic or anxiety attacks. A specific event or memory may trigger these attacks, or sometimes they occur out of the blue when the individual is calm or even sleeping.
Panic attacks and panic disorder can have many causes, such as stress, genetics, trauma, challenging family situations, and/or mental health conditions.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: “More common in girls than boys, panic disorder emerges in adolescence, usually between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Feelings of intense panic may arise without any noticeable cause or they may be triggered by specific situations, in which case they are called panic attacks. A panic attack is an abrupt episode of severe anxiety with accompanying emotional and physical symptoms.”
How to help a teen dealing with panic attack
In my clinical practice, parents often ask for help with how to approach their teen during one of these attacks.
They have often already tried with less than favorable results. Many parents are scared by panic attack symptoms, which can lead them to share their anxiety with statements such as “You are scaring me.”
Some adults believe they are attention-seeking behaviors and either walk away or make remarks such as “snap out of it.”
I have talked to many parents who want nothing more than to help but find themselves not knowing what that would entail.
In the long-term, the most beneficial step is to seek professional help. While one panic attack does not require intervention, it is uncommon for people to experience one attack without others, or without more general high levels of anxiety.
Research shows that the most successful treatment for panic disorder is a combination of antidepressant medication prescribed by a psychiatrist and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Many clinicians, myself included, recommend CBT as the first-line treatment, with medication added if necessary, to make the patient comfortable enough to participate in CBT.
How to help your teen through a panic attack?
While these interventions will be effective long-term, the question remains as to how to help at the moment.
When faced with your teen’s panic attack, accepting their perceptions and emotions as genuine and valid is crucial. Even if their fears and reactions don’t make sense to you, the anxiety is very real to them.
A basic validating statement would involve stating, “I can see you are anxious, and I would like to support you however I can.”
In a moment of calm, you might ask your teen what they would find helpful. Some teens will want to be left alone, and you can respect that wish. Alternatively, they may just want you to sit quietly with them and find comfort in your presence.
Related: Six Of The Best Mindfulness Apps For Teens To Help Them Manage Life
Using TIPP to help your teenager through a panic attack
With your teen’s permission, there are two two sets of strategies you can help your teen use to manage a panic attack.
The first of these skill sets is identified with the acronym T.I.P.P. TIPP skills decrease emotional arousal by increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity. Panic attacks are one form of extreme arousal. The TIPP method can be beneficial to assist your teen in applying these techniques.
- Tip the temperature of their face with cold water or ice. The extreme version of this skill involves having them place their face in a bowl of cold water for 30 to 60 seconds. More moderate approaches involve splashing cold water on their eyes and cheeks or placing a wrapped ice pack over their eyes and cheeks.
- Intense aerobic activity for 20 minutes is the second of these skills. By increasing their heart rate, they will decrease their state of anxiety. Some examples might be running, bursts of jumping jacks, or push-ups. If a teen finds this helpful, one can join them, so they don’t feel alone or judged.
- Paced breathing, wherein the goal is to slow down the pace of inhaling and exhaling, is the third of the TIPP skills. Ideally, breathing is slowed to roughly five or six breath cycles per minute. In addition, it involves inhaling deeply from the abdomen at a slower rate than exhaling. Again, this is a great exercise to do with your teen.
- Editors note: The team at Parenting Teens & Tweens have found the Breathing Buddha to be extremely helpful for our teenagers (and their parents) when dealing with anxiety.It uses the popular 5-7-8 breathing method for guided meditation and relaxation.
- Finally, with Paired muscle relaxation, the intention is to pair muscle relaxation with breathing out. The strategy involves tensing muscle groups, and noticing the sensation of tension while breathing in. One then releases the tension and notices the sensation of it gradually lessening while breathing out. By increasing awareness of physical tension, we also increase awareness of relaxation and decreased arousal. There are great guided meditation apps that can help you and your teen with this practice.
Related: How Guided Meditation Helped Me Grow Closer to My Energetic Tween Son
Grounding strategies can also help manage panic attacks in teens
In addition to TIPP skills, grounding strategies are frequently helpful when one is experiencing a panic attack. These techniques may help distract your teen from what they are experiencing and refocus attention on what’s happening in the present moment.
In my experience, the most comprehensive of these techniques is the 5-4-3-2-1 method.
Working backward from 5, guide your teen to use his or her senses to list things in the current environment. For example, one might start by listing five things she hears, then four things she sees, then three things she can touch from where she is sitting, two things she can smell, and one thing she can taste.
Encourage teens to try to notice the little things you might not always pay attention to, such as the patterns in the carpet or the sounds of passing traffic.
Panic attacks aren’t cured; they are managed
Neither TIPP skills or grounding exercises are cures for panic attacks. However, they are very helpful in decreasing the immediate distress.
By learning them yourself, you can be most helpful to your teen. Practicing these exercises together is also a great way to communicate to your teen that you take his or her anxiety seriously and that (s)he is not alone.
Portions of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog at Psychology Today.
Looking for additional resources on how to manage teen panic attacks? This book may be able to help. Panic Attack Workbook for Teens: Break Free from Anxiety and Overcome Fear
Raising teens and tweens is hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. Here are some other posts parents found helpful:
Comforting and Stress-Reducing Gifts to Help Your Anxious Teen
Five Empowering Things to Say to Your Anxious Teen
How Parents Can Know When to Seek Help for Their Anxious Teenager
The Best Way to Understand Your Teen’s Behavior Is to Start with Their Brain
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