Panic Disorder Basics

A child with panic disorder suffers sudden anxiety attacks that include overwhelming dread and physical symptoms that are often confused with a heart attack. This guide explores the signs and symptoms of panic disorder, how it is diagnosed and the best treatments.

Panic Disorder: What Is It?

Panic disorder is a condition characterized by repeated, unpredictable panic attacks that can cause feelings of impending death, heart attack-like symptoms, and a disconnection from reality. People having panic attacks often experience palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, among other physical symptoms, and an intense urge to flee the situation. The condition is rare in childhood, but often manifests in adolescence, when a teenager might make repeated trips to doctors and the emergency room before the psychiatric disorder is diagnosed. Attacks can happen at any time and may be triggered by a variety of cues; a key feature of panic disorder is that fear of an attack can trigger a fresh one.  For this reason, many kids with panic disorder avoid the locations of previous episodes and other places where help would not be available or escape would be difficult—ie enclosed or crowded places.  Cars, tunnels, bridges, and subways can all be worrying to a child with panic disorder. Some kids with the disorder will avoid leaving the house alone; extreme cases may even become housebound.

Panic Disorder: What to Look For

Panic disorder is characterized by the occurrence of panic attacks and deep distress about their possible return. These events are extremely stressful and frightening both for the person having the attack and those watching it happen. Should your child experience these events, she may describe heart attack-like symptoms, a sudden and overwhelming fear of death or losing control, a feeling that the world is unreal, and an intense desire to flee, as well as physical symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, sweating, and shortness of breath, among others.  After an attack, which usually peaks within 10 minutes, children may be left with an intense fear of another attack. This can lead to avoidance of situations or activities she thinks might trigger another one, which in severe cases may limit her functioning.

Panic Disorder: Risk Factors

A family history of anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and/or depression is a risk factor for the development of panic disorder. Respiratory problems like asthma also confer a risk, as does a history of panic-like episodes that don’t meet the criteria for a panic attack.

Panic Disorder: Diagnosis

A diagnosis of panic disorder often occurs only after medical explanations for signs and symptoms, as well as other psychiatric disorders—including OCD and PTSD—are exhausted. A professional will diagnose panic disorder if attacks are recurrent, and unexpected, and if one attack is followed in the ensuing months by other signs including: a preoccupation with the possibility of further attacks; fear of the effects of an attack, including the feeling of having a heart attack or “going crazy” and a considerable change from normal behavior following the attacks, such as avoiding places associated with them.

Panic Disorder: Treatment

Treatment for panic disorder is often very successful and usually consists of a pharmacological and psychotherapeutic component.

Psychotherapy:  A clinician will likely start cognitive behavioral therapy to begin reducing negative, avoidance-based behavior patterns. Another common form of treatment is exposure therapy, which counteracts anticipatory anxiety through gradual exposure to situations that are associated with attacks.

Pharmacological: Various classes of drugs may be prescribed to treat the effects of panic attacks, starting with antidepressants, which have proven effective. Benzodiazepines (Xanax, among others) are also used, though these drugs carry a risk of dependence.

Panic Disorder: Risk For Other Disorders

People with panic disorder are also at risk for substance abuse, as well as depression.