Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Panic Disorders in Young Adults and 7 Ways to Prevent Panic Attacks

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It might start with a tightening in your chest that makes it hard to breathe. Then your entire body begins to shake. Your heart pounds faster and faster. You feel like you’re going to die. What’s happening? These are the symptoms associated with a panic attack—the primary symptom of panic disorders in young adults. 

Young adults who struggle with panic disorder experience panic attacks on a regular basis. When an attack kicks in, the whole body goes into fight-or-flight mode, as if you were confronting a life-threatening situation. But for many young people, these attacks occur out of the blue, for no apparent reason. What is a panic disorder exactly, and what causes panic disorders in young adults? 

Key Takeaways

  • A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by frequent, severe panic attacks.
  • Panic disorder may be related to or caused by trauma, stressful events, genetics and family history, and/or other mental health conditions. 
  • Over time, panic disorders in young adults can interfere with daily functioning and prevent them from enjoying life and succeeding at school or in work. 
  • Treatment for panic disorder addresses underlying issues and provides tools for coping with anxiety.

What Is a Panic Disorder?

About one-third of people experience a panic attack during their lifetime—a sudden episode of intense fear, often with no apparent cause, involving physical and cognitive symptoms. However, some individuals have repeated panic attacks and experience excessive anxiety about having further attacks. They may have a mental health condition called panic disorder.

A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by sudden, severe panic attacks, also known as anxiety attacks. The attacks may be triggered by a particular situation or memory, or they may occur without warning. A young adult with panic disorder may be sleeping or feel calm when an unexpected panic attack comes on.

While panic attacks are not life threatening and typically pass quickly, they are extremely distressing, uncomfortable, and scary while they’re happening. Hence, young adults who suffer from panic disorder may develop a constant fear of when the next panic attack will occur. They may also begin to avoid places where they’ve had anxiety attacks in the past.

Signs and Symptoms of Panic Disorders in Young Adults

Panic attacks in young adults include physical, emotional, and cognitive (mental) symptoms. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the criteria for a panic attack includes four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded 
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking
  • A feeling of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Sweating
  • Temperate changes: chills or hot flashes
  • Nausea or abdominal cramping
  • Headache
  • Sensation of numbness or tingling 
  • Feelings of unreality or detachment

The symptoms of a panic attack usually last only a few minutes. However, the effects often continue after the attack itself is over. A panic attack can leave young people feeling shaky, fatigued, and worried for the rest of the day.

Know the Facts

Panic disorders usually start between the ages of 15 and 25, and are twice as common in women as in men.

Panic Disorder Causes and Risk Factors

What causes panic disorders in young adults? As with mental health conditions in general and anxiety disorders in particular, experts agree that there is no single, clear cause. Rather, a number of different factors contribute to the likelihood of developing panic disorder. 

Genetics and family history influence panic disorders. If a young adult has family members who experienced anxiety disorders or panic attacks, they may be more prone to panic disorders.

A major life event that creates stress can induce a panic disorder, even if the event is a positive one. Such events may include moving, leaving home, starting college, a new job, divorce, or the birth of a baby.

Brain structure and function may play a role in causing panic disorders. The brains of people who have panic disorders may have an especially sensitive fear response. 

Having other mental health issues, such as anxiety disorder, PTSD, or phobias, can make people more vulnerable to anxiety attacks and panic disorders.

Trauma can be a panic disorder cause. If a young adult undergoes an acute traumatic event, such as an assault, accident, or death of a loved one, they may start to have panic attacks. A history of childhood trauma, such as abuse or neglect, can be an underlying cause of panic disorders in young adults. 

Starting or coming off prescription medication can sometimes trigger panic disorder.

Using stimulants, smoking cigarettes, and/or caffeine intake can increase the possibility of having a panic attack or panic disorder in young adulthood. 

Being more sensitive to stress or more prone to negative emotions can create a higher risk of panic disorder. 

Types of Panic Disorders and Panic Attacks

Clinical experts divide panic disorders and panic attacks into various types. The two main types of panic attacks are unexpected panic attacks and expected panic attacks. The trigger is the main difference between the two types of panic disorders. However, the symptoms of the attack are usual the same with both types.

  • Unexpected panic attacks have no clear cause or trigger. They can happen at any time, even when a young adult is relaxing, sleeping, or hanging out with friends. There may be a trigger involved, such as a song they’re listening to, or a dream they were having before waking up with a panic attack. But the trigger can also be unconscious and thus impossible to pinpoint. This can create additional anxiety and increase the feeling of being out of control.
  • Expected panic attacks are linked to specific triggers, also known as “situational cues.” These cues could be related to phobias, like fear of flying or social anxiety. Or the trigger could be related to trauma. A young adult who has a fear of taking tests could experience a panic attack before an important exam. Or a young adult who was the victim of an assault could have a panic attack if they have to talk about the event or return to the location where it took place. 

What are the 4 types of panic disorders? 

In addition to the categories of expected and unexpected panic attacks, researchers have identified four clinical types of panic disorders:

  1. A single panic attack is the only symptom
  2. Panic attacks occur frequently without other symptoms of anxiety or depression
  3. Recurring panic attacks in addition to symptoms of other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety or agoraphobia (fear of crowds)
  4. Depressive symptoms develop in addition to recurring panic attacks

Let’s look more closely at the relationships between panic disorders, panic attacks, and other mental disorders.

The Link Between Panic Attacks and Other Mental Health Disorders

Panic disorder and isolated panic attacks are often linked with other mental health issues. Because panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder, young people who have panic attacks may have other anxiety-related diagnoses. These include generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, specific phobias, social anxiety, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In addition to anxiety disorders, people with a variety of other mental health conditions may experience panic disorder. Panic attacks can be a symptom of bipolar disorder, major depression, seasonal affective disorder, or PTSD. One study found that more than half of people with panic disorder also experience depression. Panic disorder may also create a higher risk of suicide

Furthermore, research shows that substance use or abuse, including alcohol abuse, marijuana use, and cigarette smoking, is potentially linked to panic attacks. Studies show as many as 40 percent of people with alcohol use disorder also have a panic-related anxiety disorder. In some cases, substance abuse catalyzes the onset of panic attacks. In other cases, people with panic disorders use substances to self-medicate the anxiety and distress associated with panic attacks.

Know the Facts

55% of people diagnosed with panic disorder will also experience a major depressive episode.

The Long-Term Impact of Young Adult Panic Disorders 

A single panic attack is extremely frightening. But over time, repeated panic attacks can be debilitating for young people’s mental health, negatively impacting every area of their daily life. Without treatment, they can suffer almost constantly from dread of the next panic attack. The fear may limit their ability to take healthy risks, try new things, or even to function in their usual activities. 

The long-term effects of panic disorders in young adults can include:

  • Phobias around leaving the house or entering new situations
  • Ongoing physical symptoms and hypochondria 
  • Avoiding places and situations that create anxiety
  • Difficulty in school or in the workplace
  • Depression, other anxiety disorders, or other mental health issues
  • Suicidal thoughts and increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts
  • Substance abuse as an unhealthy coping mechanism for distress
  • Loneliness and isolation due to the shame associated with panic disorders and the fear that social interaction will bring on an attack

Diagnosis and Treatment of Panic Disorders in Young Adults

Given the significant effects of panic disorders in young adults, it is essential for young adults who are struggling to have a full mental health assessment. Once they receive a diagnosis and care recommendations from a mental health professional, they should access effective treatment as early as possible.

Diagnosing Young Adult Panic Disorder 

A visit with a medical doctor, therapist, clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health specialist is the first step in the diagnosis and treatment of panic disorders. A provider will take a medical history, rule out any physical health issues that may be causing your symptoms, and ask questions about the patient’s experiences and feelings. The DSM-5 criteria for panic disorder includes having recurring panic attacks with at least four of the symptoms listed above, and feeling continually anxious about the possibility of having another panic attack.

Panic disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, and is twice as common in females as males. Therefore, experts recommend that young women be screened for anxiety disorders beginning at age 13, as part of their routine physical exams. However, children, older adults, and men can also suffer from panic disorder. 

Panic Disorder Treatment Options

Treatment is extremely useful in helping young adults to manage panic symptoms and heal the root causes of panic disorder or other anxiety disorders. Talk therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is particularly effective in treating panic disorder. CBT supports young people to build healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress and difficult emotions. Medication can also be helpful in reducing symptoms of panic disorder in young adults. 

In addition to treatment, specific self-care practices can support young people in reducing the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Below are some of the best ways to prevent panic attacks. 

7 Best Ways to Prevent Panic Attacks

The most important way to prevent panic attacks is by accessing mental health treatment. However, during and after treatment for panic disorders, young adults can use simple self-care approaches to decrease their overall level of anxiety and reduce the frequency of panic attacks. Having a toolbox to draw from can help young people feel better right away and over the long term. 

Here are seven evidence-based ways to cope with panic disorder.

1. Examine Your Thoughts

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques are particularly effective for panic disorder in young adults. CBT works by helping young people identify possible triggers for the attacks. The trigger might be a specific thought, situation, or even a physical symptom. Once an individual is able to separate the trigger from the attack itself, the trigger begins to lose some of its power to bring on an attack. CBT techniques can also help young people calm themselves during an attack by remembering that they will be okay and that the attack will pass in a moment. 

2. Get Creative

Creative activities help young adults clear their mind, takes them away from their thoughts, and calms them. That might be listening to music, playing the guitar, painting, or another form of making art. Creative activities induce a state of flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of being completely absorbed by an activity. He believed that creativity produces flow, and that regular experiences of flow added up to sustainable happiness. Teens need to find enjoyable, healthy ways to experience flow. 

3. Do Good for Others

Research shows that helping others has a powerful positive impact on well-being and anxiety levels. For young adults, helping others might mean 

  • Volunteering for a local organization 
  • Helping out at an animal shelter
  • Serving meals for the homeless
  • Tutoring other students
  • Participating in activism for a cause they believe in

Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. Selflessness and joy are intertwined.

The Dalai Lamal

4. Move Your Body

Regular exercise has been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a study of college students, the students who were physically active reported higher levels of excitement and enthusiasm as compared to those who were less active. Scientists say that the endorphins released by exercise have a wide range of beneficial effects on psychological health, including:

  • Elevating mood
  • Increasing self-confidence
  • Enhancing alertness and concentration
  • Decreasing overall levels of tension
  • Helping the brain cope better with stress.

5. Practice Yoga

Yoga increases stress resilience—the ability to cope with stressful situations and bounce back quickly. Researchers theorize that this effect is due to the stimulation of the vagus nerve produced by the conscious movement and breathing practiced in yoga. As a result of the mind-body connection, simply slowing down the breath helps calm the mind.

6. Do Relaxation Exercises 

Practices that stimulate the nervous system’s relaxation response reduce anxiety. Progressive relaxation techniques, guided imagery, and deep breathing exercises can help young adults activate the relaxation response. When the relaxation response kicks in, blood pressure goes down and feelings of well-being increase. Hence, young adults can use relaxation exercises to can ward off a panic attack or calm down when they feel stressed out. 

7. Limit Alcohol and Other Substances

As we have discussed, substance use, caffeine, cigarette smoking, and alcohol can make panic disorders in young adults worse. Therefore, reducing your substance use and alcohol intake can help decrease the frequency of panic attacks. Drinking less coffee may also be helpful. 

Young Adult Panic Disorder Treatment at Newport Institute

Newport Institute takes an integrated and evidence-based approach to treating anxiety disorders and panic disorders in young adults. Our comprehensive treatment addresses the underlying causes of the issue while giving young people the tools they need to thrive. In our residential and outpatient treatment programs, each client has an individualized treatment plan that includes clinical and experiential modalities as well as life skills training.

Through individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy, young adults uncover and heal past trauma at the root of mental health and co-occurring disorders, including anxiety, PTSD, depression, substance use disorder, and eating disorders. Contact us today to schedule a mental health assessment, by phone or in person, and to learn more about our nationwide young adult treatment locations. We look forward to speaking with you and supporting you or your loved one in taking the next steps in the journey of healing. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Panic Disorders in Young Adults

What causes panic attacks in young adults?
A number of different factors contribute to the likelihood of developing a panic disorder, including genetics and family history, experiencing trauma or a stressful life event, brain structure, and whether or not an individual has other mental health conditions. 

What are 5 signs of panic disorder?
Five common signs of a panic attack are tightness in the chest, sweating, a feeling of impending doom, tingling sensations, and lightheadedness.

How common are panic attacks in young adults?
About a third of people will experience at least one panic attack during their lives, and such attacks usually start in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, only about 5 percent of adults suffer from panic disorders.

What are 2 types of panic attacks?
The two main types of panic attacks are unexpected panic attacks, which seem to come out of the blue with no apparent threat or danger; and expected panic attacks, which are catalyzed by known triggers and anxieties.

What mental illness gives you panic attacks?
Panic attacks can be a symptom of a variety of different mental health issues, including generalized anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

What are the 4 different types of panic disorders?
Researchers have identified four clinical types of panic disorders: 1) a single panic attack is the only symptom; 2) panic attacks occur frequently without other symptoms of anxiety or depression; 3) recurring panic attacks in addition to symptoms of other anxiety disorders; and 4) depressive symptoms develop in addition to recurring panic attacks.

Can a person with panic disorder live a normal life?
Absolutely. With effective treatment and healthy coping skills, people with panic disorder can live a healthy and happy life without limitations.


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Mental Health / January 15, 2023