You hear a sound. You’re alone at home and it’s dark in the house. You suddenly become hypervigilant. You were sleepy three seconds ago but now you’re wide awake. Your heart starts racing. Your muscles tense up as they prepare for fight or flight. Your palms are starting to sweat and you begin to breathe hard because fear is coursing through your body. While on high alert you are ready for the potential do or die situation you might be facing.
For people with Panic Disorder this type of fear strikes without cause and without warning. It can happen in the most banal of situations. The feelings are so sudden and dreadful that a person becomes fearful of their fear. Because the fear of the fear now exists, behavior changes to try and avoid further panic attacks. For example, a person might choose to no longer exercise since an increased heart rate is part of how their panic attacks manifest.
For some people the thought of having a panic attack in an unfamiliar place, and then not being able to get somewhere comfortable to calm down, also becomes terrifying. This can result in Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia means avoiding places where escape might be difficult. Examples of this are crowded places, the mall, public transportation, or for some, even leaving their home at all.
To be clear, Panic Disorder can exist without Agoraphobia, and Agoraphobia can exist without Panic Disorder. However, these two are often linked together.
When your teenager is dealing with Panic Attacks it can be very challenging to understand. You might think to yourself, ‘Why would they even get nervous in this situation, they’ve done this before?’ The first thing to note is that a Panic Attack is far worse than being nervous. Always remember that it feels the way you’d feel if you were alone in the house and thought there was an intruder. It is an overwhelming sense of terror.
Panic Disorder can be greatly helped with a form of therapy called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. The idea is to mimic some of the symptoms of panic until they stop being scary. This is done very gradually and in a controlled manner. The process is not overwhelming even though it sounds like it would be. The other two facets of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Panic Disorder include slowly resuming activities that have been avoided because of panic, and learning to control the thoughts that lead into a Panic Attack. These thoughts can be extremely challenging to identify, but with a good Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist they can be uncovered.
The bottom line is that Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia can be debilitating. They are not something to ignore. Both can cause life to become very small for the person suffering with them. If your teenager is dealing with panic, please reach out because they do need help.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT