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How panic affects children

how panic affects children

When people talk about panic disorder, they often think of adults suffering from panic attacks. This is a common misconception. Before the teen years, children who suffer from panic attacks or develop panic disorder normally have a stressor in their environment. This stressor causes anxiety. If it isn't addressed, the anxiety can turn into panic attacks. Like adults, the experience of a panic attack can truly scare a child. 

Being afraid of having another panic attack and having this fear and/or anxiety trigger the attack can develop panic disorder in a child. Stressors can be major life changes, such as moving home or switching schools, instability in the home or a violent environment.

During the teen years, the major life changes that can affect teens and can trigger panic attacks are often connected to the pressure felt by teens. Many of today's teens have to go through major changes between the ages of 15 and 19. Sometimes these are hormonal and physical changes that they can't deal with, other times it has to do with moving away to college and being away from home and feelings of safety for the first time. 

Also, some teens develop mood problems during the teen years. Mood problems are highly comorbid with panic disorders, and sometimes panic disorder develops as a secondary disorder to a mood disorder.

If parents are attentive enough, they should be able to notice if their child or teen has panic disorder. Commonly, children who are suffering from psychological problems will exhibit changes in behavior. A child may no longer want to play with friends or go to certain places, while a teen may be less willing to socialize. 

Parents should also be on the look out for other signs of anxiety, such as insomnia (younger children tend to cry at night or have nightmares), or showing signs of worry.

Panic disorder in children and teens should be addressed as soon as possible to keep it from becoming a bigger problem and to prevent the possible development of other psychological disorders. 

Since panic in children is quite common, it is definitely something parents should be aware of. Protecting children from panic attacks and panic disorder, as well as addressing their problems while young will ensure that they will be able to cope better in life.

Finally, it is also quite common that events that happen in childhood do not affect the person right away. Rather, they affect the person in adulthood, and not necessarily in a way that is easy to connect to the original trauma. 

This is in fact the premise behind panic-focused psychodynamic therapy. It is the job of the therapist to find the original underlying problem and address it. For example, the divorce or rocky relationship of a person's parents can affect their personal relationships in the future. When a future relationship falls apart, it can stir up the suppressed feelings from childhood, causing a panic attack. It is the therapists job to reveal this insight and help the patient come to terms with the issue.

Panic and stress are rather closely connected. Stress can trigger panic, and at the same time panic can cause stress. This may lead to a vicious cycle, which contributes to the development of panic disorder in some people. Most of the time, when stress or a stressor triggers panic, the stress taps into underlying issues that the person has. This means the stress itself may not be the direct cause of the panic. It was a catalyst of sorts. However, there are some circumstances when stress seemingly causes panic. This is most easily seen in people with a panic personality.

The panic personality or a personality that makes a person more likely to suffer from panic attacks and/or panic disorder has not been proven or officially recognized by science and psychology. However, some studies done on those who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder have shown a trend in the personality traits of the patients. Because of this trend, the theory of a panic personality was formed.

A person who has a "panic personality" exhibits or has several or all the following traits:

  • highly responsible

  • workaholic

  • overly cautious

  • often attempt to avoid stressful situations

  • low self-esteem or lack of confidence

  • depend on others for approval

  • highly sensitive to criticism

  • hardly or has difficulty expressing feelings (especially anger)

  • Introverted

The personality itself does not lead to panic attacks or panic disorder. Instead, these personality traits can create situations in which the person will develop many unresolved interpersonal conflicts and anxious feelings. This type of personality is also very susceptible to stress, which can add to the build up of anxious feelings within the person.

For example, a teenage girl with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence who has always depended on others for approval and has always been highly sensitive to criticism now has to move away to college. Her college is in a faraway state.

 Being away from her family and her comfort zone is a big stressor for her. She never tells her parents of her fears and anxiety. She pretends everything is okay.

Since she has always tried avoiding stressful situations, her being an introvert became more pronounced during her first two weeks of college. This was because she was afraid of what they would think of her, and she was anxious about how she would act. Now, college classes are in full swing and the girl finds that the simple act of stepping out the door of her dorm room triggers panic attacks.

In this situation, the girl's personality helped develop her panic attacks. Perhaps there was a lot of pent up anxiety and frustration (aside from not discussing her fears of college) that she kept throughout her teen years, and it was finally triggered by this major life change. The line between panic and stress is rather easily seen.

Remember, it doesn't mean that a person with this personality will end up with panic attacks or panic disorder. It simply makes them more susceptible to it. Apart from the personality traits, other factors need to be present in order to develop the disorder.

Panic and stress almost always go hand in hand. Even if a person does not have the panic personality, stress is very good at triggering panic or unlocking underlying interpersonal issues. When the body is stressed and its tipping point, it needs to release tension. If this isn't done in a healthy manner, panic attacks and panic disorder can develop.

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