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Pediatric Panic Disorder
What is Panic Disorder?
A panic attack is defined as an episode of intense fear and anxiety including both physical symptoms and fearful thoughts. Panic disorder (PD) is diagnosed when a child has recurring panic attacks and ongoing concern about having more attacks for longer than one month. Children and teens with panic disorder sometimes avoid going places or avoid engaging in activities out of fear that a panic attack might occur. Although individual panic attacks are common, panic attacks that occur repeatedly are rare. They typically happen in only one to three percent of children and teens. Panic disorder usually does not affect children before the teenage years.
What Are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?
These are the most common symptoms of PD in adolescents. Typically, several symptoms are present during a panic attack.
- Racing heart or heart palpitations
- Choking sensations
- Difficulty breathing
- Sweating/hot or cold flashes
- Numbness or tingling in the limbs
- Fear of dying or losing control
- Feeling as if one is in a dream
- Fear of going crazy
- Feeling like one needs to “escape”
Panic symptoms often come on quickly (within 10 minutes) and can last for minutes to over an hour before fading away. Panic attacks are sometimes unexpected and feel as if they happen “out of the blue.” Other times, certain things or places can trigger an attack. It is common for children or teens with PD to avoid situations where they believe an attack might occur. In severe cases, avoiding activities or places may result in the child or teen needing a “safety person” to go with them when they leave home. Or they may refuse to leave home altogether.
How is Panic Disorder Diagnosed?
At Children’s National, child psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals may interview the child or teen and his or her parents. We may have the patient and family fill out questionnaires about different aspects of the child’s or teen’s life, including physical health concerns, difficulties at school, or behavior with friends and family.
Treatment for Panic Disorder
Following a full assessment, a member of the Children’s National care team will discuss treatment options with the child or teen and his or her family. Cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) and certain types of medicines are helpful in treating PD.
- CBT with a therapist may include learning how to control panic symptoms through breathing exercises and relaxation.
- Children and teens learn to gradually face situations that cause their anxiety.
- Medicines most often used to treat PD are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medicines affect neurotransmitters (nerve cells in the brain that carry signals) linked to anxiety.
The Anxiety Disorders Program at Children's National Hospital is a specialized treatment clinic devoted to carefully assessing and effectively treating a wide range of anxiety disorders common among children and adolescents.
Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s National offers assessment, diagnosis and care for children and teens with behavioral, emotional and developmental disorders.
In the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, our child psychologists and other mental health professionals work exclusively with children and teens, emphasizing patient and family-focused care.
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