COPD and Panic Attacks | COPD Foundation

Posted on August 31, 2015   |   

This blog post was written by Ryan Rivera,

Panic attacks are a type of mental health disorder that can feel overwhelming. Most people associate the word “panic” with fear, but panic attacks are not necessarily a fear-related disorder. Indeed, while they can be triggered by fear, panic attacks may have no trigger at all, and the symptoms are almost entirely physical. They include:

  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • Racing heartbeat.
  • Chest pain and difficulty breathing.
  • Feeling faint, lightheaded, or dizzy.

People that have never experienced panic attacks before often describe the experience as “feeling as though they are dying.” Over-sensitivity to your own physical responses is one of the clear culprits. A little bit of anxiety or nervousness (which is common for those with panic disorders as they worry that they may get a panic attack) causes the person experiencing the panic attack to overact to the heart beat increasing, triggering another panic attack.

Panic attacks are difficult enough for those that have no other physical or mental health problems, leading to agoraphobia and the occasional hospitalization despite nothing being physically wrong. For those with COPD, panic attacks can be much worse, because when you have COPD, a panic attack – which, again, has no physical cause – can be misconstrued as a serious health complication. Worse is that, for safety, it would be dangerous for a doctor to assume that someone living with COPD is having a panic attack, so they may load those with COPD with medicines and treatments they otherwise don’t need, potentially exacerbating your health problems or, at the very least, causing considerable medical expenses.

The most important thing you can do to help with your panic attack management is to learn as much as you can about panic attacks, pay attention to your own panic attack symptoms, and make sure those around you understand that you suffer from panic disorder.

Panic attacks are difficult to cure, but they’re made worse by a complete lack of understanding both in and out of the medical field about what they are and what the experience of a panic attack is like. Many doctors still treat panic attacks like a medical disorder, when in reality they need mental health treatment. In addition, those that suffer from panic attacks often struggle to believe that something so severe could be caused by something mental, especially if you have COPD. But the more you and others understand panic disorder, the less you’ll be affected by the symptoms.

Similarly, learn to understand your own triggers and focus on the differences between your COPD and your panic attack problems. Your ability to tell the difference is an important part of limiting the panic attack symptoms and unnecessary medical visits. You should also consider all of the following:

Give yourself a task to complete when you have a panic attack. Panic attacks happen in cycles, and if you have a go-to task (like drinking water or counting to 20) that you do when you have a panic attack, you’ll be able to manage the attack better and worry less about the next one. Never reinforce it. Agoraphobia – or the fear of being outdoors – is a common side effect of panic attacks. Too many people fear leaving their home because they worry that they’ll get a panic attack if they do, and of course these panic attacks become self-fulfilling prophecies, thus reinforcing their fear. Instead, expect a panic attack. Wait for it, have a plan in place, and move on once it comes. Only by acknowledging that they’re coming can you learn to live with them.

Find a buddy/partner. Someone to call is always useful, especially if they understand both your COPD and your panic attacks. They’ll be there with you to talk you down from your anxiety/panic, and you know that if something goes seriously wrong you’ll have them on the phone with you to help. Panic attacks involve some of the most severe anxiety symptoms available, and are difficult enough for those in otherwise good health. If you have COPD, they can feel overwhelming. Learn as much as you can about panic disorders and coping strategies, because only if you learn to live with both can you enjoy the quality life that you deserve.

About the Author: Ryan Rivera used to suffer from unbearable panic attacks and agoraphobia, but learned to cope and can now live more comfortably out in the open. He writes about panic attacks and anxiety at


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