Identifying Risk Factors for Panic Attacks in Teens

Anxiety disorders are mental health conditions which cause individuals to feel an abnormal amount of anxiety and fear. An anxiety disorder can develop when someone is still a child or when he or she is well into adulthood.

One anxiety condition that is often in the news is panic disorder. Several celebrities have recently come forward to share their experiences with panic disorder. Even the protagonist in the highly popular Iron Man movie franchise battles panic disorder following a traumatic incident.


Panic disorder is characterized by sudden attacks of anxiety known as “panic attacks.”
There are a number of physiological symptoms of a panic attack. Here are a few common symptoms, courtesy of WebMD:

  • Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Sense of terror, or impending doom or death
  • Feeling sweaty or having chills

These symptoms affect the mind and the body of a person who is having a panic attack. An attack can be emotionally distressing as well as physically uncomfortable. Some people have noted that a panic attack feels like a heart attack because both can cause chest pain and shortness of breath.


In a study by Hayward et al. (“Predictors of Panic Attacks in Adolescents”), four doctors sought to identify four key factors which can make a given individual more likely to have a panic attack at some point in his or her life. The first attack often occurs during adolescence.

According to the researchers, “the majority of those with panic attacks and panic disorder never receive treatment.” By identifying risk factors for panic attacks in teenagers, the researchers hoped their findings could eventually contribute to a discovery of effective preventative measures.

This could allow mental health workers to help people who are “higher risk” for panic attacks receive treatment earlier.

The risk factors for panic attacks identified by the researchers are being female, negative affectivity, anxiety sensitivity, and childhood separation anxiety disorder. Each factor will be described in greater detail below.

Female Sex

A number of mental health conditions — including panic disorder — are more prevalent in women than in men. This means that, statistically speaking, a woman may be more likely than a man to develop panic disorder (assuming two people have a similar background).

Negative Affectivity

“Negative affectivity” is basically a part of one’s personality that makes one more likely to be emotionally impacted by something negative. The study lists a susceptibility to “fear, sadness, self-dissatisfaction, hostility, and worry.” A naturally “positive-thinking” person or an optimist would probably be less likely to fall into this category. The researchers note that negative affectivity is thought to have a possible connection to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Anxiety Sensitivity

“Anxiety sensitivity” is a person’s natural tendency to feel anxiety. Someone who has high anxiety sensitivity is especially prone to anxiety and may be at a greater risk for panic attacks.

Childhood Separation Anxiety Disorder

The researchers believed that teenagers who had suffered from separation anxiety during childhood may be more likely to have panic attacks at some point. People who had childhood separation anxiety disorder also seem to be at a higher risk for developing other anxiety conditions such as agoraphobia and other phobias.

Major Depression

A history of having major depression was also considered by the researchers. The disorder was found to be linked to several of the risk factors mentioned above and also to panic disorder.


The results of the study reveal that negative affectivity (naturally being more emotionally affected by things that cause negative feelings) is likely to be linked to having panic attacks. People who have panic attacks were also shown to be more likely to have issues with major depression and people with major depression to experience panic attacks.

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