What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden and intense experience of fear and anxiety that causes physical symptoms. While a panic attack is scary it is not dangerous. Often, sufferers feel a sense of doom or dread, as if they’re experiencing a serious medical event such as a heart attack. Symptoms usually increase in intensity over minutes before gradually getting better.
Symptoms can include:
- Heart pounding
- A feeling of breathing difficulty with or without chest pain
- A feeling like you might die
- Nausea or stomach upset
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Feeling hot or cold
- Feeling outside of one’s body (depersonalization)
How to Diagnose and Treat a Panic Attack in Children
A panic attack can be diagnosed on history and physical exam. While the symptoms felt are real, the fact that they get better indicates that something more serious is not happening. Many patients with panic attacks end up in the emergency room where tests are run to rule out other serious conditions.
Treatment can be divided into handling panic attacks when they occur and prevention to keep them from happening again. Usually this involves targeting underlying anxiety.
How to help your child get through a panic attack:
- Stay calm yourself. Your child will take cues from you.
- Gently remind your child throughout that the symptoms will stop. Panic attacks always end.
- Take deep breaths with your child
- Focus on your child’s specific symptoms like a racing heart. Tell them these symptoms aren’t caused by illness. They are caused by fear.
- Don’t offer too much reassurance. Be with the child. Don’t rush the symptoms.
Panic attack prevention is crucial once the event has passed. This might include:
- Addressing underlying anxiety, especially if there are specific things your child is nervous about
- Breathing and relaxation exercises can increase your child’s body awareness and teach them how to calm themselves down
- Psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy can train your child’s mind to identify and change panicky patterns of thought. Exposure to anxiety-producing situations is a key part of this therapy.
- Medicine can help in some situations. Children benefit from medicines that can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, but should only receive this type of treatment in conjunction with therapy.
Resources for parents
Check in with K if…
- You have general questions about your child’s condition
- You want general followup for your child
- You have questions about supportive care
- Your child’s symptoms don’t go away after recommended treatment but are not alarming
See a doctor in person if…
- Your child’s symptoms don’t get better or get worse
- Your child has difficulty breathing
- Your child feels lightheaded or passes out