What is panic disorder?
Panic is a “fight or flight” reaction. It is a sudden surge of fear. When panic attacks happen repeatedly, without warning, it is called panic disorder. These attacks can happen many times every week.
Panic disorder (PD) may last for a short time or may continue for many years. With treatment, most people improve in less than a year.
What is the cause?
The exact cause of this disorder is not known.
- The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way you think, feel, or act. People with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
- Certain parts of the brain and nervous system cause the emotional and physical surge of fear. A stressful event may trigger the panic. But often panic begins with no identified stressful event.
- PD tends to run in families. If a parent has panic disorder, children are more likely to have it. However, more than half of those with panic disorder do not have a relative with a history of this disorder.
Many people with PD also have agoraphobia, which means they avoid going places or doing things because they are afraid they will panic and have no help. It is common to have depression along with panic disorder.
Panic disorder usually starts in the teen or young adult years. Children who were often scared when separated from their parents are more likely to develop PD later.
What are the symptoms?
Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly. Children or teens with PD may:
- Cry in fear
- Tremble or shake
- Be short of breath or feel like they are being smothered
- Feel like they are being choked or have trouble swallowing
- Feel their heart pounding or feel like something is pressing on their chest
- Feel they are going to die or that they are going crazy
- Feel very helpless to stop the attacks
Along with these main symptoms, children or teens may:
- Be on guard all the time or startle easily
- Eat very little or become very picky eaters
- Have trouble concentrating due to worry
- Not do as well as they could in school
- Have frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Have trouble falling or staying asleep, or have nightmares
These feelings start suddenly and get very strong, usually within 10 minutes. Symptoms usually last from 20 to 30 minutes. The attacks happen without warning.
If your child has a panic disorder, these symptoms come repeatedly. Panic attacks may happen at certain times of day, such as bedtime, or with daily events, for example, going to school. When this is the case, the child often worries as these times approach. The child feels helpless to prevent the attacks.
How is it diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider or a mental health therapist will ask about the child’s symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines the child is taking. He or she will make sure that your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms.
A mental health therapist who specializes in working with children and teens may be best qualified to diagnose PD.
How is it treated?
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps children learn what causes them to feel panic and how to control it. CBT teaches skills for managing the fear and the worrisome thoughts about whether an attack is coming.
Family therapy may also be helpful. Family therapy treats the whole family rather than just the child. Children often feel very supported when parents and siblings attend therapy with them and work as a group.
Several types of medicines can help treat panic disorder. Medicines used to treat PD in adults may not work best for children and young teens. Your childâ€™s healthcare provider will work with you to select the best medicine. Your child may need to take more than one type of medicine.
How can I help my child?
Get emergency care if your child or teen has ideas of suicide, harming himself, or harming others.
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This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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