When a person’s anxiety grows extreme enough, it can culminate in a panic attack.

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are episodes of intense stress triggered by what should otherwise be rather ordinary, non-threatening situations. A panic attack is essentially the body’s fight or flight response kicking in and going into overdrive, which is why you get the racing heart and shallow breaths accompanied by a general sense of panic. Because of the amount of energy they require, panic attacks are usually brief, typically lasting no longer than 5 or 10 minutes.

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks may arise in response to certain stressful situations (such as when a child suffers one in anticipation of public speaking), or they may seem to come out of nowhere, striking without warning. They can be triggered by a child’s thoughts and fears. Children are more prone to panic attacks on or before the first day of school, when attempting to try something new, or when faced with a challenging situation.

Like other anxiety problems, panic attacks can be self-reinforcing. After a person suffers one once, the fear of a recurrence creates additional anxiety, which ultimately makes future panic attacks more likely.

Imagine two backpackers going for a hike in the woods. The first hiker is warned by a park ranger that there’s a ferocious bear roaming the woods whose been known to attack hikers. The second never gets this message. As a consequence of this prior knowledge, the first hiker spends his day on high alert. Every rustle in the bushes, every unexpected noise, each strange sound; all of this causes his anxiety to rise even further. His senses will regularly send up alarm signals because his mind has been primed to look for them.

This is analogous to the self-reinforcing pattern that can fuel panic attacks. Knowledge of it having happened before creates anxiety that it might happen again, and this fear of a recurrence becomes its own fuel for additional attacks.

Signs & symptoms of a panic attack

As stress hormones flood the body, it kicks off a cascade of physiological reactions that can lead to any number of symptoms:

  • Breathing becomes faster and more shallow, and some people may feel as though they can’t breathe or exhibit symptoms similar to an asthma attack.

  • Muscles tense in anticipation of the need to act, which can lead to a general sense of feeling tight throughout the body.

  • Chest pain often accompanies a panic attack, and is the result of this muscle tension.

  • Heart rate speeds up and rising blood pressure can lead to tingling sensations and other strange feelings throughout the body.

  • Senses go into high alert, which can result in strange sensory experiences. Focus narrows, which can result in a child tuning out everything else around them. Time may feel like it slows down. A person may experience strange audio or visual sensations.

Are panic attacks dangerous?

Panic attacks can be a scary experience for any child. They may feel like they can’t breathe or assume they are going to die. But although the experience may be quite uncomfortable, panic attacks themselves are harmless. Parents shouldn’t treat them as something dangerous, which is only going to make a child’s anxiety worse.

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