Panic Attacks and Anxiety with Lung Disease

by | May 5, 2015 | Lung Disease, Related Conditions

Understanding Panic

Every doctor, physician, family member and friend says that a diagnosis of chronic lung disease is not the end of the world. And they’re right. With new technology and medical advancements like cellular therapy, there is more hope and a greater chance to get back to the life you once had. And while you remain hopeful, it is inevitable that at times you will feel hopeless and scared; you might panic. That’s okay. But the good news is that there is something you can do about it.

Think back to when you were first diagnosed with emphysema. What did you do? How did it feel? For many, it goes something like this: The doctor said it—the three words that terrified you—chronic lung disease. It felt like you couldn’t move. The idea of not being able to breathe is terrifying. It didn’t take long for the dangers associated with emphysema to settle in. There were so many things you didn’t think you would ever be able to do. You wondered if you could ever live a normal life again. On top of that, you were scared to quit smoking, but you knew you had to. It was killing you, but it had been your vice for so long. You had always reasoned one more cigarette, and you would be done, but that never happened. All of these thoughts were swirling through your head; it was so overwhelming and it wouldn’t stop. As anxiety built up, you couldn’t slow down your thoughts. Moments later, you were having a full-blown panic attack. You couldn’t breathe; your heart was going a mile a minute; your chest was tightening; and pretty soon, you couldn’t see the world around you. You could’ve sworn that you were having a heart attack, but that wasn’t it. After what felt like eternity, your breathing went back to normal and you were able to stand on your own. It wasn’t a heart attack, but it still wasn’t normal. You were facing the reality that many people dealing with a chronic condition have to—everything was not going to be okay.

Many chronic lung disease sufferers are forced to manage anxiety disorders and panic attacks. This can be terrifying because individuals with a chronic lung disease already struggle to breathe, and the sensation of your breathing intensifying and your heart racing can make life even scarier. Many people see panic attacks as something that you must inevitably deal with. They believe that they aren’t dangerous, just scary. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Panic attacks are considerably dangerous for individuals with COPD (the overarching umbrella condition that emphysema fits under) because they can interfere with treatment and lung disease management. Individuals with both a lung disease and a panic disorder often have a lower quality of life, demonstrate more symptoms, require more treatment and end up in the hospital more frequently.

What Really is a Panic Attack?

When an individual begins to have a panic attack, there is a seemingly random explosion of fear. This fear is often completely unrelated to anything happening in a person’s life, and if it was prompted by something, the reaction far surpasses a typical reaction. Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Skipping or racing heartbeat
  • Increased difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain and chest tightness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Cold sweats
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Inability to control body temperature
  • Tingling in your extremities

Panic attacks are highly detrimental to many treatments because the hyperventilation occurring during a panic attack creates rapid and shallow breathing. This ultimately reduces the ability of the lungs to process oxygen and worsens any symptoms.

What Should You Do When You Have A Panic Attack?

When a panic attack strikes, it is essential that you have a plan of action. Planning ahead and practicing what you will do in case of a panic attack can significantly lower the impact of a panic attack. The two best methods of coping with a panic attack are to breathe and then accept the anxiety. Trying to fight off the fear won’t make you feel less anxious, but rather will further perpetuate the “fight or flight” feelings you are already having. The sooner you can recover from a panic attack, the better you will be able to breathe easier.

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As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to focus on common mental health issues that often piggyback onto a chronic lung disease diagnosis. Every Tuesday this month, we will choose a new mental health issue to tackle. Be sure to check in every week. If you would like more information about managing life with a chronic lung disease or are ready to take the next step to breathing easier, contact the Lung Health Institute at 888-745-6697.

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