Many anxiety disorders can escalate to anxiety or panic attacks. Often, however, panic attacks seem to come out of nowhere. Panic is an extreme feeling of fear that accelerates to a high intensity in seconds. Often the initial experience of panic is so powerful and strange it is interpreted as a medical crisis. Sometimes kids feel like they can’t breathe, could pass out, have a heart attack, and/or feel like they are coming out of their skin and can’t hold still. They may have a complete emotional meltdown. The following symptoms are characteristic of a panic attack. (These are present to a lesser degree in most types of anxiety disorders.) A child doesn’t have to have all of these (or be aware of them) for it to be panic. These are not subtle; they are very strong physiological reactions and “trump” everything else going on.
Learn more about what causes panic attacks >
Learn more about panic disorder in adolescents >
Panic Attacks: Symptoms
- Increase in speed and force of heart rate/beat like its racing or pounding out of your chest
Lots of sweating and in places that might not be typical like face and hands (cold and clammy hands) plus the usual places like under the arms
Jitters or shakes in arms, legs, head, maybe all over. Kids might call it butterflies or heebie-jeebies.
Trouble getting a breath, feeling shortness of breath or smothering
Lump in the throat or feeling like you could gag or choke
Pain in the chest area (might have other muscle pain but chest gets more attention)
Upset stomach, might feel like you could throw up or have diarrhea.
Woozy or lightheaded, like you might faint, pass out or lose your balance
Feeling weird, like things aren’t right or quite real or even a bit detached from yourself, like you are watching yourself. (Technical term is derealization or depersonalization
Feeling like you are going to go crazy, totally out of control
Sense of doom, death, dying
Getting pins and needles feeling or numbness usually in arms and legs
Getting hot and cold (often feels like waves of each)
Might get a headache, neck pain, ringing in ears (these are not as common)
Children may uncontrollably cry or yell or become defiant.
Believe it or not, these are part of the very normal “fight or flight” response. There is nothing wrong biologically when this happens. The body is doing what it is supposed to do when danger is present. The problem is when it happens without apparent danger or explanation. This results in scary misinterpretations and a fear of it happening again. So, if you are running from a charging rhinoceros this reaction is awesome (except for the angry rhinoceros, of course :)). If you are about to go to school then it is not so good. Because this is such a terrible feeling anything that might cause this will be avoided and sometimes heels-in-the-ground-ten-wild-horses-can’t-drag-me-avoided.
Our Turnaround Anxiety Program was designed to help children suffering from panic attacks.