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Puberty and Panic

For most teenagers a run up the stairs is simply the quickest way to get from one floor to another, but for some the resulting breathlessness and pounding heart triggers anxiety or fear – possibly predicting a future vulnerability to panic symptoms.

Psychologist Ellen W. Leen-Feldner has found that adolescents who tend to respond fearfully to such bodily reactions can have a tough time during adolescence. As an adolescent grows and the body changes, the adolescent may become vulnerable to panic symptoms, or other serious problems.

“Panic might be thought of as a ‘gateway condition’ that can predict the development of an array of mental health problems,” Leen-Feldner said. “We have had little understanding of the risk factors for adolescents.”

To fill the gap, Leen-Feldner and colleagues Laura E. Reardon, Kimberly Babson and Matthew Feldner, all of the University of Arkansas, with Laura McKee and Michael J. Zvolensky of the University of Vermont, conducted the first direct study of the relation between puberty and panic-type responding for adolescents. The results appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

While research has suggested that puberty might be a period of high risk for the development of mental illnesses, little was known about the link between puberty and vulnerability to panic attacks. Given that puberty is marked by significant physical changes, it makes sense that teenagers might be at risk for developing panic-type problems.

The researchers designed their study to exmaine one factor in the relationship between puberty and panic – the tendency to respond with fear or anxiety to normal bodily sensations. They limited study participation to 123 psychologically healthy adolescents to eliminate the impact of factors related to existing mental illnesses. To elicit a panic-type experience, researchers guided each volunteer through a three-minute breathing challenge.

The researchers found that those adolescents who were further along in puberty and high in anxiety sensitivity expressed fear of the bodily sensations elicited by the breathing challenge. For those low in anxiety sensitivity, there was little relationship between their maturity and anxious responding to the breathing challenge.

Their data, in conjunction with earlier studies, “suggest that elevations in anxiety sensitivity may potentiate panic-relevant learning that occurs during the course of puberty,” the researchers wrote.

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