Children, alas, are increasingly susceptible to depression. They can also 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 amongst those suffering panic attacks than those suffering from depression.
Conventional wisdom holds that panic doesn’t begin before late teens or early adulthood. Truth is, almost nothing is known about its life course. New York psychiatrist Dr. Moreau, put out a call to local emergency rooms for children 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 stresses. In children, 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. Pretoria psychiatrist, Dr. van der Walt says that the most obvious signs of panic disorder in children present as “a sudden avoidance of social situations or performance situations, such as oral examinations, the development of ritualistic behaviour and the presence of excessive anxiety”. “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 locate them in adolescence. Local expert, Dr. Potgieter, has also found these statistics reflected in her personal experience of dealing with anxiety sufferers: “If I look back at the history of a lot of my adult anxiety patients, they were already displaying signs of anxiety in their teen years: for some reason, at that stage, they were not aware of it”. No study yet indicates how many children 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 children 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.
According to Dr. van der Walt, another complication is that panic disorder often occurs co-morbidly with depression. Depression can cause serious harm in children leading to difficulties in getting on with friends and family, displaying an inability to study and work at school and manifesting eating and behavioural problems. Dr. van der Walt warns parents that symptoms such as irritability, withdrawal, physical manifestations, lethargy and suicidal threats could all be warning signs.