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What to do when your teen says they’re having panic attacks

Panic attacks are intense periods of anxiety and fear. They are commonly associated with generalized anxiety, which impacts about one-third of teens in the US (1). Learn what a panic attack is, how it differs from other types of anxiety, and steps you can take to help your teen.

At Joon, we provide therapy to 13–26 year olds every day. So we understand what’s typical teen stuff versus when to worry—we can help.

Lauren Hammond, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Joon Clinical Content Manager

Understanding teen panic attacks

During adolescence, your teen goes through many changes. Part of those changes might be mood fluctuations that your teen didn’t exhibit before. 

While occasionally acting out or being irritable is a normal part of adolescence, persistent anxiety symptoms may be a sign something more is going on. We all have a “fight, flight, or freeze” response that helps us respond to threats in our environment. Unfortunately, that system sometimes starts responding when there isn’t any danger. This can lead to intense feelings of fear, plus physical symptoms like lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, or a racing heart, otherwise known as a panic attack. Panic attacks often come on abruptly, and the feelings of anxiety or worry can last long after the physical symptoms have ended. About 10% of adolescents report having panic attacks (2).

The most common signs of panic attacks are:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Racing heart
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness or feeling faint or dizzy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating more than usual
  • Feeling chills or hot flashes
  • Experiencing a choking sensation
  • Headache
  • Muscle tightness or tension
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Can’t stop crying

Teens who are having a panic attack may also feel: 

  • They aren’t in control of their body
  • They are dying or going crazy

Panic attacks can occur on their own or with generalized anxiety 

When differentiating between the panic attacks and generalized anxiety, the biggest indicators are intensity, how long they last, and the number of physical symptoms. 

Panic disorder impacts about 3% of teens (3) and is diagnosed after teens have multiple, sudden panic attacks. Additionally, teens begin to fear having panic attacks and start avoiding places, people, or situations where panic attacks have happened in the past. Not every teen who has panic attacks will develop panic disorder. If your teen is experiencing panic attacks, this is a sign to get them help.

Discovering that your teen is having panic attacks can feel overwhelming, but as a parent, you can help your teen get help and mental health support.

Is it time to get support for your 13-26 year old? We’re here to help.

Why would my teen have panic attacks?

Teen panic attacks often stem from a variety of biological, social, and environmental factors. The following factors may start, worsen, or contribute to your teen’s panic attacks.

  1. <h3>Genetics and brain chemistry</h3>

Research shows genes can contribute to panic attacks and chemical imbalances in the brain.

  1. <h3>Other mental or physical health diagnoses</h3>

Teenage panic attacks often occur with other mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders. Difficulties dealing with one mental illness can then make it harder to deal with another. And certain physical conditions, like asthma, can increase the likelihood of having panic attacks.

  1. <h3>High levels of stress or traumatic events</h3>

High levels of stress can also contribute to the development of panic attacks. Teens may experience stress about their grades, friendships, or extracurricular activities. Experiencing a traumatic event, like the death of a loved one, can also increase the risk of developing panic attacks.

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What to do when your teen is having panic attacks

When you find out your teen is having panic attacks, there are steps you can take to support them right away:

  1. <h3>Take them seriously and work to figure out the cause</h3>
    During a panic attack, your teen often feels like they are going crazy or losing control. If they tell you how they are feeling, take them seriously. Listen to their concerns and validate the thoughts and emotions they are feeling. Panic attacks are scary—both for the teen experiencing them and the parent watching them suffer. The two of you can begin exploring what, if anything, sets off these panic attacks. Helping your teen identify their triggers helps them cope ahead for those situations in the future.
  1. <h3>Get mental health support</h3>
    Panic attacks are a clear indicator that your teen needs mental health support. Seek therapy that is oriented specifically to teens and young adults and that relies on evidence-based treatments, like therapy at Joon. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has proven to be effective in increasing relaxation and reducing anxiety.
  1. <h3>Create a coping plan</h3>
    You can help your teen create a coping plan when a panic attack starts. Some common coping skills for panic attacks include
    a. Deep breathing:
    Have your teen focus on breathing slowly through their nose like they are smelling a flower, and then breathing slowly out of their mouth like they are blowing out a candle. If possible, try to get them to breathe out longer than they breathe in. This helps slow their heart rate down.
    b. Grounding:
    Grounding refers to helping your teen focus on the present moment using their senses. A common grounding technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Using this technique, you’ll have your teen describe 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste.
    You can also try some of Joon’s online Meditations.
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Our care team, just as unique as you.

Meet our licensed therapists, skilled in evidence-based methods and just as diverse as the teens they support.

Therapy works for teens who are experiencing panic attacks.

Therapy can help your teen explore what triggers their panic attacks. Additionally, therapy can provide a space for your teen to explore what makes them anxious. Teens can learn how to manage their symptoms, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, and learn coping skills for future stressors. Additionally, therapy can help teens work on approaching places and situations they may be avoiding because of their anxiety.

Look for a therapist who specializes in providing evidence-based care to teens. Therapy at Joon is evidence-based and designed for teens and young adults. They use our mobile platform and are given personalized skill-building practice in the app. 

As shown here, recovery data means being below the clinical symptom cutoff at least half the prior four weeks. In comparison, a study in 2017 reported 43% recovery after outpatient CBT for anxiety, and in 2009, 27% recovery after outpatient CBT for depression.

Therapy at Joon helps teens with serious mental health symptoms like anxiety and panic attacks. You can read more about our latest data on the effectiveness of Joon for treating 13-26 year olds.

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