Kids, alas, are increasingly susceptible to depression. They also can be anxious and hyperactive. But only recently have researchers discovered that children are also subject to full-scale heart-thumping panic attacks.
Each year in the U.S., more than three million people are seized with sudden, unpredictable terror along with such physical symptoms as heart palpitations, chest pain, choking or smothering sensations, sweating, weakness and dizziness. Many panic victims believe they are dying or going crazy, and fear doing something uncontrolled. Suicide rates turn out to be far higher for those who get panic attacks than those suffering from depression.
Conventional wisdom holds that panic does not begin before late teens or early adulthood. Truth is, almost nothing is known about its life course.
So New York psychiatrist Donna Moreau, M.D., put out a call to local emergency rooms for kids who might be brought in with the distinctive but disabling symptoms. Ninety children were referred to her for clinical testing at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre, where she heads the anxiety and depression unit. Of the 90 brought in, 90 percent proved to have bona fide panic disorder.
The youngest is a seven-year-old who complained of a racing heart and breathing trouble. In young children as well as adults, panic attacks occur spontaneously, not in reaction to obvious psychological stress. In kids, the attacks are often misdiagnosed as separation anxiety or school phobia. Typically, fear of having a full-blown attack leads victims to restrict activities and avoid going to school or other public places.
“These children are really suffering,” says Moreau. “It takes a long time for them to be diagnosed.”
When adults with recurrent panic attacks – about two percent of the population – are asked to recall their first physical symptoms, one in five pinpoints adolescence. No study yet indicates how many kids are prone to this disorder or what happens to them in adulthood.
Both drugs and cognitive-behavioural therapies work in adults and, presumably, children with panic disorder. Identifying panic-prone kids and providing treatment may stave off serious consequences seen in adults. Many alcoholics may actually be panic sufferers trying to quell the disabling symptoms with nature’s best-known anti-anxiety medication.