Panic attacks in children
Panic attacks are periods of intense and uncontrollable fear, often accompanied by a variety of other symptoms. They can last anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours and can happen without warning.
When a person has recurring panic attacks, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder. While panic disorder usually begins to develop during adolescence, it can also develop during childhood. This usually stems from anxiety, such as discomfort being away from home or family, or feeling nervous about social activity.
Panic attacks can cause a variety of symptoms. Symptoms are different for everyone, but some of the most common are:
- Feeling extremely fearful or anxious
- Increased heart rate
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty swallowing
- Trembling or shaking
Other symptoms can include nausea and numbness or tingling.
Usually, symptoms will subside after a short time. However, some people report ongoing symptoms.
While panic attacks can feel scary, they’re manageable once you figure out what may be causing them. However, if left untreated, panic attacks can add mental and emotional strain to children with underlying mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Children with respiratory conditions such as asthma may also experience additional discomfort because panic attacks can cause feelings of shortness of breath. Having combined symptoms of a panic attack and asthma may be particularly challenging to manage.
Diagnosing a child with panic disorder
If you feel that your child may be experiencing panic attacks or panic disorder, it’s important to take a trip to your family doctor. They can rule out any other conditions that may be causing your child’s panic attacks.
Following their evaluation, your doctor may refer your child to a mental health professional. They can offer a psychological evaluation. They may diagnose panic disorder if:
- There are no other conditions that are causing the panic attacks or its symptoms
- The child has experienced multiple panic attacks
- The child has changed their behavior or lifestyle due to the panic attacks
There are several effective treatment options for panic attacks in children. A treatment plan for your child could involve therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of these options.
Therapy may help your child understand what triggers their anxiety and how to manage it better. Common approaches for children are behavioral therapy, which helps address and manage negative behaviors, and cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps address and manage negative thoughts.
Exposure therapy may also be recommended to help your child become less fearful of situations that frequently cause panic attacks.
Medications can be a short-term or long-term treatment option based on the severity of your child’s anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly used to treat children with anxiety disorders.
Making adjustments to your child’s daily routine and lifestyle can also help reduce the instance of panic attacks. These can include:
- A consistent sleep schedule
- A healthy diet
- Adequate exercise
Your doctor or psychologist may also offer guidance on some muscle relaxation or breathing techniques that can help ease your child’s stress and anxiety.
Whatever your child’s treatment plan, there are a variety of options that can help make their anxiety and panic attacks manageable as they go through everyday life.
If your child is experiencing panic attacks, know that they’re not alone. Panic attacks aren’t life threatening, and with the proper tools and treatment, they can be manageable. Talk to your child’s pediatrician and work on techniques to help your child manage stress and anxiety.