Is It a Panic Attack or COVID-19 Symptoms?

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

MAY 19, 2020

Anxious Cancer PatientA panic attack is defined as a sudden rush of intense feelings that can include a racing or pounding heart, trembling, sweating, shallow breathing, chest pain, a fear of choking, nausea, dizziness, and a fear of losing it or going crazy or even of imminent death. The symptoms usually peak in about ten minutes and then begin to subside. However, a panic attack can be so intense and so frightening that people may go to the ER or call their doctor. Sometimes they are triggered by a known situation like a big exam or giving a public presentation. Sometimes they happen without warning or without an obvious stimulus.

Studies have indicated that one in four Americans will have at least one panic attack sometime during their life. A panic attack is not dangerous in and of itself, but it certainly feels that way. It is worth mentioning that panic attack symptoms can also be similar to those of a heart attack. People who have a cardiac history, high blood pressure, or who are experiencing the often-described left-sided chest and arm pain, should immediately seek medical help. It is much better to end up a little embarrassed because you are fine than to ignore a possible heart attack!

During the Coronavirus pandemic, panic attacks have taken on an additional layer of upset. Since some of the symptoms, specifically difficulty breathing and tightness or pressure in the chest, are similar to COVID-19 symptoms, someone may immediately worry that s/he is ill with the virus. Of course, this worry then makes the panic worse. The very clear distinction is that a panic attack comes and goes pretty quickly, even though it does not feel it at the time, and severe side effects of COVID-19 develop over days. We have all read the gamut of stories from some who become ill with the virus, but stay at home and self manage, while others quickly become very ill and need to be hospitalized. We have read other accounts where people describe feeling better during the daytime and then much worse at night. Any of these scenarios can escalate fears during a panic attack.

The Difference Between a Panic Attack and COVID-19 Symptoms

Are there clear and distinct ways to tell the difference between a panic attack and possible symptoms of COVID-19? The single most important one, to be somewhat repetitive, is that a panic attack will pass within 15 or 20 minutes. COVID-19 symptoms do not. Almost always, symptoms of the virus include a fever and a cough, neither of which happen with panic attacks. The best advice is to try to remind yourself that these scary feelings will likely pass quite quickly. You can breathe into a paper bag or even your cupped hands; that may help and does function as a distraction. If there is someone else around, ask for help and reassurance. Having someone stroke your back or hold your hand will help, and that person can remind you to just keep breathing and that you will be better in a few minutes.

As noted earlier, panic attacks are not uncommon. Some people are more vulnerable to them than others, but we are all on high alert due to worries about COVID-19. Everyone is paying extra attention to any physical symptoms. Is my throat sore? Or oh no, I coughed. Or I may have a headache and maybe even a fever. If possible, remind yourself that you are probably fine and try to distract yourself. Don't just sit there and worry; get up, move your body, even if that is only to go into the kitchen for a glass of water. Most of the time, the worries will pass.

Have you had a panic attack or other moments of intense anxiety about possibly being infected by COVID-19? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your story.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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