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”:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- 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.