Are panic attacks typical?
Even though our bodies have a natural alarm system that goes off when something is wrong to prepare us to handle emergency situations, having panic attacks is not typical. Usually, when children and adolescents experience panic attacks, their alarm goes off without a real threat or problem.
Panic attacks can be triggered by specific situations, but a lot of times they seem to occur out of the blue. Many children and adolescents describe them as feeling as though a room is closing in on them, as if they can't breathe, or if they are about to die. Panic attacks include:
- Feelings of imminent danger.
- The need to escape.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Shortness of breath or a smothering feeling.
- Feeling of choking.
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Sense of things being unreal.
- Fear of losing control or "going crazy".
- Fear of dying.
- Tingling sensations across the body.
- Chills or hot flushes.
Most children and adolescents who experience one panic attack don't experience more of them. However, for some this experience can be so unsettling that they can start to worry about having new attacks. It may be a cause of concern when such worries lead to the avoidance of places, activities, or situations where they may feel unsafe, as well as to an anxious anticipation that most times increases the chances of new attacks.
When should I be concerned about a child’s panic attacks?
Children and adolescents who face panic attacks and start fearing new ones, usually develop an intense fear of the physical sensations associated with panic, such as elevated heart rates, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, even when they are not having a panic attack. This apprehension increases their attention to those bodily reactions and the tendency to interpret them as signs of new attacks. This frequent apprehension leads to an increased sense of anxiety that makes children and adolescents more prone to new attacks, maintaining a cycle.
Panic attacks are usually a sign that a child or adolescent is struggling, so they require attention and support whether they happen once, or recurrently. Early support can prevent the panic cycle from strengthening itself.
What can I do to help a child with panic attacks?
Caregivers know their children best. If you are a caregiver, there are a few things you may attempt to help your child if they are having panic attacks.
Panic attacks usually last for about 10-15 minutes, but they can feel like a lifetime. While your child is having a panic attack you can try to:
- Avoid reinforcing somatic complaints. One characteristic of panic attacks is thinking that there is some physical problem going on in the body, such as a heart attack. Avoid taking your child to emergency room visits, measuring pulses, or blood pressure when your child complains about it.
- Help your child to take deep breaths. Try asking your child to look at you in the eyes and take deep breaths with you. Talk in a soothing voice asking them to keep their eyes on you. Tell them to take a deep breath in and then a slow breath out as if they are blowing through a straw or blowing onto a candle flame without letting it go out.
- Act calm and assure your child. Children look to adults for reassurance, so avoid panicking or expressing too many worries. Remind your child that any bad sensations they are having will pass eventually.
- Help your child feel safe. All children, from toddlers to adolescents, will benefit from your touch, cuddling, hugs or just a reassuring pat on the back. It gives them a feeling of security.
- Help your child to distract from anxious thoughts. When children are in the midst of a panic attack, they tend to be too focused on their scary and anxious thoughts. So, asking your child to imagine and tell you about a place that makes them feel happy or asking them to look around the room and tell you what they see may help them to distract from what is causing them distress.
- Help your child to find something relaxing that can relieve tension. One important symptom of panic attack is muscle tension. So, finding ways to help your child relax, such as a warm bath, a few stretching exercises while taking deep breaths, and moving the body to release tension might be helpful.
For children to learn how to manage their anxiety and prevent the occurrence of future panic attacks, it is important that they understand their triggers, and that anxiety responses are temporary and not all bodily sensations are signs of an attack. If you have tried some or most of these suggestions and the problems your child is facing persists, it may be the moment to seek out professional support.
Panic attacks that are too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, feared, and that negatively interfere with your child and family’s daily lives, may indicate the possibility of Panic Disorder.
What kind of professional support can I seek out for help?
It is not unusual that some caregivers feel embarrassed, inadequate, or guilty if their child is struggling with panic attacks. But, if you are concerned about your child, support and guidance are available now. Communicate concerns during and between visits with your child's doctor.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful. These professionals also work with caregivers so that they know how to support their children outside of therapy sessions.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Panic Disorder can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.