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Suffering From Panic Attacks? You Are Not Alone

How COVID-19 has impacted panic attacks, and steps you can take if one strikes

By Randi Mazzella

In October 2021, co-anchor Dan Harris left ABC's "Good Morning America Weekend" after 21 years with the network. In his announcement, Harris expressed his desire to focus his attention on his Ten Percent Happier's meditation company, which includes an app and podcast. Harris became interested in meditation after suffering an on-air panic attack in 2004.

An older adult having a panic attack and covering her mouth with her hand. Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

Harris is not the only famous person to suffer from panic attacks. Carson Daly, Selena Gomez, Prince Harry and Stephen Colbert have all been candid about their struggles with panic disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "An estimated 2.7% of U.S. adults had panic disorder in the past year and an estimated 4.7% of U.S. adults experience panic disorder at some time in their lives."

The Difference Between Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Debra Kissen, an author and CEO of the Light On Anxiety CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) Treatment Center in Chicago, says, "A panic attack is a misfire of the 'fight or flight' signal a person experiences when there is a real danger. Although they are not in real danger, the sensation of fear revs them up and it can feel like they are dying, out of control or going crazy."

"A panic attack is a misfire of the 'fight or flight' signal a person experiences when there is a real danger."

Panic attacks (also known as anxiety attacks) usually last for about 10 minutes and then symptoms begin to subside. 

It is common for people to have one or two panic attacks in their lives, usually in times of extreme stress. But if panic attacks are happening regularly, a person may have panic disorder.  

"It becomes fear on top of fear," explains Kissen, "A person becomes hypersensitive to the feeling of having a panic attack and this fear can bring on the panic." 

Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast from iHeartRadio, says, "Panic disorder usually develops in younger patients. But midlifers may see a return in symptoms that they thought had improved. Isolation, loneliness, losses and extreme anxiety can all be triggers for panic attacks in older adults."

The COVID-19 Factor

The COVID-19 virus has impacted panic attacks in several ways. First of all, some common panic attack symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and tightness or pressure in the chest, are similar to COVID-19 symptoms.

"Because of the pandemic, we have been hyper-focused on our bodies and any weird symptoms that might mean we have COVID," says Kissen. Fear that you have the virus can make the panic worse.

But unlike panic attack symptoms, COVID-19 symptoms do not subside quickly. Patients with the COVID-19 virus usually also experience fever and a cough, neither of which occurs when someone has a panic attack.

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A second factor is that the pandemic has increased people's anxiety. A study published in The Lancet in October 2021 found that COVID-19 had led to a surge in anxiety and major depressive disorders worldwide, particularly among women.

"The pandemic has increased our fears and taken us out of our normal routine," explains Kissen. "It has caused people to slow down and has given them more time to think. The downtime may make us more likely to notice subtle symptoms that would have been missed or downplayed if [people] were busier."

How to Deal With Panic Attacks

Panic attacks themselves are not considered life-threatening, but they are scary and can impact a person's quality of life. It may feel best for sufferers to avoid situations that could trigger panic, but this is counterproductive.

"It's hard," explains Saltz, "We have been told for months that the outside world is dangerous. Our brains have gotten positive reinforcement for practicing avoidance. But now we need to push ourselves with baby steps to regain our lives."

If you are suffering from panic attacks, try the following:

See a physician. Make an appointment with your doctor for a complete workup to rule out any medical issues that could be the cause of your symptoms. Kissen says, "The fix can be something simple like you are dehydrated and need more fluids. Or it could be something more serious that requires further attention."

Accept the diagnosis. Physicians usually diagnose panic attacks by ruling out other possible causes of the symptoms. "Patients may not believe that panic is what is causing their very real symptoms," explains Kissen, "They may believe that doctor is wrong and want to go for additional tests. But it's usually best to accept the diagnosis and begin treating the symptoms."

When it comes to panic attacks, it is imperative to practice self-compassion.

Keep a diary. Rather than approaching panic attacks from an emotional perspective, be more of a detective and take a scientific approach. Write down the details surrounding when your panic attacks occur.  Things like the time of day, where you were, the specifics of the situation, even what you ate (or if you didn't eat) can all be helpful clues in learning how to manage panic disorder.

Do the opposite of what you feel like doing. Suppose you are in the middle of a meeting and begin feeling the symptoms of a panic attack. Your instincts may instruct you to flee the meeting. But instead, do the opposite. Kissen says, "Your brain is telling you that you are in danger. If you get up, you're confirming to your brain that something is wrong. But if you stay, you tell your brain that you are 'ok' and that this nothing to fear."

Seek professional help. Kissen says, "People may feel shame or think it is weak to seek treatment for panic disorder. But therapy can be effective in helping sufferers to re-train their brain and teach them how to handle their symptoms."

Be kind to yourself. When it comes to panic attacks, it is imperative to practice self-compassion. Kissen says, "It's counterproductive to belittle your pain or feel you 'should be okay.' We have all experienced losses and changes this past year-and-a-half due to the pandemic. Just because you didn't suffer as much as someone else does not mean you aren't going through a tough time."

Finally, panic attack suffers may need to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Remember, when experiencing a panic attack, you are not in real danger. 

Kissen says, "Exposure is key. Allowing yourself to experience short-term pain will lead to long-term progress. Remind yourself that you are resilient and that these feelings are going to pass."

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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