I hear a lot of people toss out the phrase “panic attack” in very dramatic fashion when describing events that are stressful or frightening. Of course most of the time these aren’t real clinical panic attacks, but I hear it enough that I think the topic is worth spending some time on, especially for kids, who can have a really hard time sorting through these incredibly difficult episodes. And children do get panic attacks. Yes they do… that look a bit different than your average neighborhood adult panic attack. So let’s get to it.
A panic attack is…
when a child experiences what seems to be a random, brief episode of intense fear and upset that can be accompanied by actual physical symptoms. The attack usually doesn’t last for more than 10 or so minutes and goes away on its own. The child may complain of rapid heartbeat, nausea, chest pain, shaking, sweating, or feeling dizzy. He/she may even state that (s)he feels like (s)he is going to die. There’s no real trigger for a true panic attack, but children may trace it to something concrete, and if it happens repeatedly it can negatively affect many aspects of their lives, from wanting to go to school or out in public to coming into contact with things or experiences that they associate with the panic. These panic attacks feel very real to the child experiencing them, and likely represent an adrenaline-like rush (in a bad way) that he/she can’t control.
I’ve had exactly 2 panic attacks in my life, and my symptoms were textbook.
My heart was beating a mile a minute; I was dizzy and sweaty, and I felt a sense of overwhelming doom that I cannot explain. I had no reason to feel that way. Sure enough, the feeling gradually went away, but during the episode I felt HORRENDOUS. I am 100% sympathetic to people who undergo this routinely, no matter their age.
The initial trick is to make sure that there’s no actual other organic cause for the symptoms. As an example, we need to make sure that the rapid heartbeat isn’t from an actual ARRYTHMIA (abnormal heart rhythm). Once that’s all squared away the focus should be on counseling and biofeedback and behavioral techniques to help the child recognize when a panic attack is coming on and give them tools to help manage through it. In severe cases some children may need medicines like anti-depressants to help with the symptoms.
What can you do if you know a child with panic attacks?
1. Be calm & a good listener
2. Comfort and encourage
3. Praise for efforts to recognize and “get through it”
4. Help with relaxation and biofeedback techniques.
Lots of sensitivity required here, obviously, but I think it’s time we draw a little more awareness to this issue and help kids out so that maybe, just maybe- there’s a little less of a panic going around.
Christina Johns, MD, MEd is the Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatrics. As a parent, pediatrician, and pediatric emergency physician with a master’s in education, she shares her own expertise, plus the wealth of knowledge from their highly skilled staff, with patients and families everywhere.
Follow Dr. Christina online for health tips, insightful articles, and more.