Panic disorder may occur in adults, adolescents or children. Children and adolescents with the condition suffer similar panic attacks to those found in adults as well as the same intense anxiety that is associated with the fear of future attacks.
Symptoms of childhood panic disorder
Panic attacks and associated symptoms may occur without any apparent trigger or warning and may last for minutes to hours.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
Palpitations and irregular heartbeat
Intense fear and dread
Light headedness and dizziness sometimes causing unconsciousness
Tightness of chest, chest pain, shortness of breath, choking.
Shivering, trembling or shaking
Nausea, abdominal cramps, churning of the stomach. There may be involuntary passage of urine or stool.
Sense of detachment from self and surroundings leading to a sensation of confusion
Living with panic disorder
Panic disorders commonly begin during adolescence. Both the attacks themselves and the fear of future attacks can completely interfere with the teenager's ability to function normally at school or at home and may also affect interpersonal relationships, social life and psychological development. A child may also desperately try to avoid any situation they fear may trigger an attack, such as an exam or presentation. Over time, the child develops anxiety and mood disorders and teenagers are prone to abusing substances that may provide temporary relief from their condition such as alcohol or drugs.
Diagnosis and treatment
It is imperative to treat children and teenagers with panic disorder as soon as possible after diagnosis. Diagnosis is most commonly made by excluding the presence of any medical condition that may cause panic attacks. A detailed physical assessment including blood and ultrasound tests is therefore performed. An evaluation of any history of panic attacks is also obtained and a mental health examination carried out.
Treatment is usually a combination of medications and psychotherapy or counselling. Psychotherapy may be directed towards the sufferer themselves or may be family focused to improve communication among all individuals involved as well as inform them about how to cope with the condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also commonly used to help the patient learn techniques for controlling panic attacks and anxiety.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc