Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My daughter is worrying about her upcoming graduation and the future. Lately she can’t sleep and her heart is racing. Is she having panic attacks?

Even if she isn't having panic attacks, her anxiety could be cause for concern

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Interim Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My daughter who is graduating high school this year is having trouble with anxiety issues. She worries over graduating, college, and future events in her life, which seems normal to me, but lately she says she can't sleep and her heart races sometimes while she is just sitting in her room. What could be causing this? Is this really a panic attack, or is she imagining this?

It’s so great that you’re reaching out with this question. You’re absolutely correct that young adults can worry about transitioning to college, the future and being an adult. Having those worries can be very normal. However, it sounds like your daughter’s sleep might be being impacted and she might be having some bodily sensations related to anxiety, which could be cause for concern.

A panic attack is a surge of physical sensations and/or intense fears that come seemingly out of the blue and last for a discreet period of time. A racing heart is one of the symptoms, but not being able to fall asleep isn’t. For your daughter to be having a panic attack she would need to be experiencing at least three more of the following panic attack symptoms:

  1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. Sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Shortness of breath
  5. Feelings of choking
  6. Chest pain or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  9. Chills or heat sensations
  10. Numbness or tingling sensations
  11. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  12. Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  13. Fear of dying

Even if your daughter isn’t having panic attacks, you are still picking up on some feelings of distress that are outside of the norm for your daughter, so it is good that you are asking questions. It may well be that her impending graduation is causing some situational stress. She may find it very helpful to talk to a mental health professional about some of the stress that she’s having. A mental health professional could also help determine if her sleep disturbances and other symptoms are transient in nature or more chronic, or if she is also struggling with other things like a depressed mood. Either way, talking to someone may help her with managing the stress that’s coming in the next couple months with her graduation and transition to college.