April 30th, 2008
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A panic attack is defined as suddenly feeling intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and triggers severe physical reactions. Some people feel like they are having a heart attack or possibly dying during a panic attack. Certainly, there is fear in losing control. They can make your heart pound, cause dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. While a panic attack would be frightening for anyone, it must be terrifying for a child. A child just placed with an adoptive or foster family probably has numerous circumstances that cause panic attacks, at least initially. The feeling of panic is surely compounded by not having a person they know and trust to turn to for protection. Oh sure, their new adoptive family has said that they can be trusted. However, after suffering early neglect or abuse, a child isn’t likely to trust any adult, let alone someone recently met.

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Panic attacks are understandable for a newly placed child. However, if it is still happening several months after placement it could indicate that your child suffers from a panic disorder. A panic disorder is a type of chronic anxiety disorder. Once dismissed as nerves or stress, panic disorders are now recognized as a real medical condition. Untreated, panic attacks can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. For children, it may prevent them from making friends, joining clubs, or playing sports. However, medication, therapy, and/or relaxation techniques could help to prevent or control panic attacks.

It is estimated that up to six million Americans suffer from panic disorders. A person’s risk of suffering panic attacks is increased by having a family history of panic attacks. Other events that may trigger attacks are significant stress, death, or loss of a loved one, history of physical or sexual abuse, or other traumatic event. Before a diagnosis, many people may fear they suffer from a serious condition and visit the emergency room or make repeated visits to doctors.

We adopted a sibling group many years ago and the younger sister had pituitary dwarfism. We were new to foster care and adoption and didn’t recognize the symptoms of panic attacks. She was afraid to ask a sibling to pass the ketchup. After several years of therapy, we visited a psychiatrist that diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder. She began taking Paxil and was a changed person, outgoing and assertive. Her endocrine specialist, whom she saw for her pituitary dwarfism then explained that many children with her diagnosis also have anxiety disorders. It is unfortunate that he didn’t tell us sooner. She missed many years of friendships and significant relationships.

Photo Credit Julia Fuller 2008

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