Is your child really having a panic attack?

Some things I frequently hear from my child patients and parents alike are “I [my kid] is having panic attacks all the time.” After I ask what symptoms they are experiencing, usually only around 2/10 are experiencing actual clinical panic attacks. In order to really start reducing this confusion, let’s begin by defining a panic attack (not an “anxiety attack,” which is a layman’s term). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition), also known as the DSM-5, a panic attack is “an abrupt surge of fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within a few minutes, and during which four or more of the following symptoms occur”:

  1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. Sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. Feeling of choking
  6. Chest pain or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. Chills or heat sensations
  10. Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
  11. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  12. Fear of losing control or going crazy
  13. Fear of dying

The presence of panic attacks are not a diagnosis in and of itself. However, depending on how frequently they occur, and in what context they appear (e.g., do they appear “out of the blue” or do they occur only in social situations), this clinical information can determine a more serious diagnosis (e.g., Panic Disorder vs. Social Anxiety Disorder).

I frequently hear “my child is stressing out, crying all the time, and is nonsensical when they speak.” While these symptoms can accompany panic attack symptoms, they alone do not count for panic symptoms. If you do think your child is experiencing panic symptoms, they should be getting a proper clinical evaluation by a mental health professional to determine the duration, type, and clinical presentation of the symptoms. This way, they can be properly diagnosed and then treated.

Author:

I am a clinical psychologist with approximately 15 years of experience assessing and treating anxiety and depressive disorders in young children, adolescents, young adults, adults and geriatric populations. I completed a 6-year predoctoral training award at the National Institute of Mental Health, and postdoctoral training at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living/Hartford Hospital. From my clinical and research experiences, I have come to see the struggles of many families deciding when to pursue professional help and feeling very lost in the process. I will address several mental health issues that will help educate and empower my readers to make better mental health decisions for themselves. Welcome to my blog! Johanna Kaplan, Ph.D. Disclaimer-This blog is not and cannot be used in replace of formal therapy. This blog is used to inform and educate and is not a form of informal or formal advice.

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