Don’t panic, just breathe

January 31, 2020 — by Jeanette Zhou and Anjali Nuggehalli

She felt paralyzed.

It was two years ago when sophomore Kate DiNucci fought with her mom and started feeling as though the walls in her bedroom was swallowing her whole. 

DiNucci could barely breathe and spent the next 20 minutes curled up in a ball on the floor.

Although she had never experienced a panic attack before, DiNucci knew that what had happened was more than just feeling upset or overwhelmed.

She is hardly alone in having suffered one of these attacks. Experts have identified the causes of the problem and recommended a range of approaches for handling them and moving beyond them. 


What is a panic attack?

    According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, panic attacks involve a feeling of dizziness, fearfulness, shortness of breath, shaking and sense of unreality. While the Mayo Clinic states that most people have around two panic attacks in their lifetime, if someone experiences several unexpected attacks and are in constant fear of another episode approaching, they might have a more extreme condition called panic disorder. 


What is the difference between anxiety and panic attacks?

    While people often view panic attacks synonymously with anxiety attacks, according to, panic attacks often occur much more abruptly. 

    CASSY therapist Aneesa Vaez-Iravani said that while both anxiety and panic attacks are common among teenagers, there are distinguishing factors between them. 

Vaez-Iravani said that panic attacks have a more intensive onset and most often occur out of the blue, whereas anxiety is typically more gradual and triggered by a perceived stressor or threat; panic attacks usually last a short duration when compared to anxiety, which tends to persist over longer periods of time.


How many people get panic attacks?

    DiNucci is one of about 13.2 percent of people who experience them, according to a World Mental Health Survey. Often, panic attacks first occur in adolescence and can be identified by a variety of symptoms.

    The Data Research Center for Child and Adolescent Health reported the number of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents had gone up 20 percent just from 2010 to 2012.


What does a panic attack feel like?       

According to an article by Dina Cagliostro, a licensed psychologist specializing in child and adolescent psychology, in order for a panic attack to be formally diagnosed, the patient needs to have unexpected attacks. They must also display a variety of symptoms such as sweating, trembling and shortness of breath.

“It feels like the room is shrinking and you’re becoming very small,” DiNucci said. “Your heart is racing and your head is pounding.”


What triggers them?

    According to Cagliostro, panic attacks are more prevalent among people who are more prone to experiencing negative emotions that can be caused by past trauma or many “interpersonal stressors,” like arguments.

    “When I got panic attacks, it just felt like a lot of things were going wrong in my life,” DiNucci said. “I was having trouble with one of my best friends and I was having family troubles, so whenever I would get into a larger fight, like with my mom, then sometimes they would happen.”

    Claire McCarthy, a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, attributes the rise in anxiety disorders among teens to increasingly high expectations, a more threatening world with an increase in school shootings and the prevalence of social media in her article titled “Anxiety in Teens is Rising: What's Going On?”


What should I do if I get a panic attack?

Along with therapy, states that immediate strategies such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques can also be extremely effective.

“When I have panic attacks and feel like I’m spinning out of reality, I practice a method called ‘grounding,’” DiNucci said. “I remind myself of things I can feel, see and smell because it pulls me back to wherever I am.”

According to VeryWellMind, grounding is a coping strategy that immediately connects you with the present. By using the five senses, grounding also acts as a distraction from upsetting thoughts and feelings. 


What are long-term treatments for panic attacks?

In addition to medication, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown in many studies to be the most effective treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder. 

According to The American Psychological Association, CBT is a type of therapy that tries to teach patients how to be their own therapist by developing coping skills to change their thinking and problematic behavior in reaction to stimuli.

While DiNucci has not had CBT, she has been to counseling.

She first saw a therapist in elementary school over the course of her parents’ divorce, and continued to go to sessions sporadically throughout middle school. 

“While I was actively in therapy, I didn’t really notice any progress,” DiNucci said. “But now that I look back, therapy definitely helped me with the way I approach the world, which makes handling problems a lot easier.”

However, Vaez-Iravani states that, while going to therapy for panic and anxiety disorders is beneficial, it can be difficult for many people to ask for help.

“Due to some residual stigma surrounding mental health issues, it may be embarrassing for someone to disclose that he or she suffers from panic attacks,” Vaez-Iravani said. “As a result, not everyone who experiences panic attacks seeks the help needed.”

    DiNucci has not had a panic attack in almost a year. She credits this to being in a better place in her life. However, she knows that shifting to a more positive mindset isn’t easy.

    “Talking about panic attacks isn’t something to be afraid of, despite it being hard to explain to others,” DiNucci said. “I always remind myself that if I survived something that bad, I can do it again because I now know how strong I am.” 


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