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An early start for panic.

An early start for panic

Ann is 8 years old and no stranger to panic. At school and at other places outside of home, she often starts to breathe quickly, her heart races, her stomach throbs and she suddenly feels "out of control." Crowded areas frighten her, and she frequently calls her parents from school, pleading to be taken home. Ann once fled a building after panicking in a cafeteria line. The prospect of further frightening episodes haunts her.

Ann's recurrent panic attacks are typical of what, in adults, is termed panic disorder with agoraphobia, a fear of being alone or in public places. Although panic disorder is rarely diagnosed in children, it may be more common among school-aged youngsters than often assumed, according to a report in the July AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY.

Ann and two other children with panic symptoms were treated over several years by psychiatrist James C. Ballenger and his colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Such children usually receive a diagnosis specific to childhood such as separation anxiety, which is marked by intense fears surrounding separation from a parent and refusal to attend school or other activities outside home.

But Ann and the other two children clearly met adult criteria for panic disorder with varying degrees of agoraphobia, Ballenger and his co-workers contend. Furthermore, the children significantly improved when treated with drugs that ease the panic and agoraphobia of adults. Each child also attended psychotherapy sessions.

Panic disorder and agoraphobia in children may go unnoticed, the researchers suggest, because a youngster's forlorn appearance distracts clinicians from underlying anxiety. In addition, children are more likely than adults to emphasize physical symptoms over feelings of anxiety.

Given recent revelations that other adult psychiatric disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, can begin in childhood, the South Carolina investigators call for expanded research into the nature of panic among children.
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Title Annotation:Behavior
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 22, 1989
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