Think about the last time you've felt really nervous about something. Maybe it was before a major test, your last soccer playoffs or a first date with your latest crush. Do you remember how your body told you it was nervous?

Butterflies in your stomach, the jitters, your heart racing, your mouth dry, your palms moist... These are all natural responses to stress, but what if these symptoms happened for no good reason? Or what if they were so bad, you weren't able to do what you'd normally like? Unfortunately, abnormal stress responses, such as panic attacks, are quite common and cause a lot of turmoil in some teens' lives.

What exactly is a panic attack? It is defined as "the sudden onset of intense anxiety, feelings of fear and apprehension, often accompanied by palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, and trembling." It can happen at anytime, with no warning at all, or it can be an exaggerated response to a usually stressful event.

Did You Know?
About ten percent of people will experience at least one panic attack throughout the course of their life, however, some people will have attacks up to several times a day and this can be very debilitating.

Experiencing a panic attack can be very scary, especially if it happens out of the blue and is associated with a lot of physical symptoms. Some people feel as if they're having a heart attack, an asthma attack, a serious allergic reaction or even as if they are going to die. These people often find themselves in the emergency department and are frustrated when doctors cannot find anything physically wrong with them.

When the symptoms are related to a particular situation or place, it is called agoraphobia. Common examples are panic attacks that occur in small/crowded spaces, during social events or while driving.

Agoraphobia can be very disruptive because people will tend to avoid the triggering situation. Imagine what it would be like to never be able to ride an elevator or a bus or be at a crowded party because you're afraid or embarrassed about having a panic attack! This would certainly limit your ability to do normal day to day things.

People who have frequent panic attacks, or even if they've had only one attack, and have worried so much about having another that they have altered their life because of it, are said to have "panic disorder." This disorder is a serious psychiatric illness that affects 2-5% of the population. It is most common during the late teenage years or the mid-thirties.

Did You Know?
Females are 2-3 times more likely than males to have panic disorder.

Up to 50% of people with panic disorder have other psychiatric illnesses, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance abuse. Importantly, panic attacks can be caused by other psychiatric problems, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is unclear why some people are more likely than others to develop panic attacks. Theories relate to abnormalities in neurotransmitters and adrenaline which is involved in the stress response. There also appears to be a genetic component, with family members having ten times the risk of developing the disorder, however, social and environmental factors also play an important role.

So what can be done if you think you have panic attacks or panic disorder? Firstly, it's important to not be embarrassed about your fears and to seek out help. Often making the diagnosis will make you feel better — if a person knows that what they're feeling is not due to a physical problem, they will tend to worry less about having another attack. See your family doctor who can explain your symptoms and find ways to prevent attacks, which includes counselling, psychotherapy as well as medications.

Learn More!


Kids Health on Teens and Anxiety

Dr. Barra obtained her medical degree at the University of Western Ontario and is currently completing her internal medicine residency in London, Ontario. She was born and raised in Toronto and loves gelato.


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