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COPD Anxiety & Panic Attacks: 5 Ways to Win Back Control

copd anxiety, relaxation techniques for copdPanic attacks are defined as episodes of intense anxiety accompanied by physical sensations of extreme arousal. Symptoms of panic attack include racing heart beat, weakness, dizziness, numbness and tingling of the hands and fingers, sweating, chest pain, difficulty breathing and a feeling that you’ve lost control.1 The prevalence of panic attacks in COPD is estimated to be up to 10 times greater than that of the general population.2

Why Do People with COPD Experience Panic Attacks?

In COPD, panic attacks often occur when patients overestimate the immediate threat presented by worsening breathlessness. As physical sensations like breathlessness and racing heart beat intensify, they’re interpreted in a catastrophic way, often causing patients to feel as though suffocation and death are imminent.2

Controlling the Panic Before it Controls You

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, then you know how frightening they can be. Preventing a panic attack – or diffusing one that’s in progress – is one of the best ways to proactively take charge of the panic, before it takes charge of you.  Here are 5 ways to regain control:

  1. See your doctor – There are a number of medications that are effective in treating panic attacks, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and atypical antipsychotics (tranquilizers and drugs that reduce nervous tension).3
  2. Practice relaxation techniques for COPD – A daily dose of guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, or mindfulness meditation helps reduce the intense anxiety that’s commonly associated with anxiety and panic attacks. Practiced daily, techniques that promote relaxation can even diffuse a panic attack that’s already begun.4
  3. Increase your physical activity – Regular, aerobic exercise such as walking or riding a stationary bicycle reduces stress and built-up tension, while increasing energy, enhancing mood, and improving sleep.5 If your goal is to manage panic attacks more effectively, exercise comes highly recommended.
  4. Seek professional counseling – Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps patients understand the negative thought patterns and feelings that influence their behavior. Studies suggest that CBT can significantly reduce panic attacks in COPD resulting in fewer anxiety symptoms, catastrophic thought patterns, and hospital admissions.2
  5. Join a support group – According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder. Joining a support group, either online or at a local community center or hospital, will provide you with a social support network in which to turn during times of need.6


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


1 WebMD. Panic Attack Symptoms. Last reviewed April 26, 2012.
2 N. Livermore, L. Sharpe, and D. McKenzie. Prevention of panic attacks and panic disorder in COPD. ERJ March 1, 2010 vol. 35 no. 3 557-563. Published online before print September 9, 2009, doi: 10.1183/09031936.00060309. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/777720.
3 Freire RC, Machado S, Arias-Carrión O, Nardi AE. Current Pharmacological Interventions in Panic Disorder. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2014 Jun 12. [Epub ahead of print].
4 Jeannette Moninger. 10 Relaxation Techniques that Zap Stress Fast. WebMD Feature. Last Reviewed September 30, 2013.
5 Dr Kenneth R Fox. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition / Volume 2 / Supplement 3a / March 1999, pp 411-418. DOI: Published online: 02 January 2007.
6 Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Getting Support. Accessed 6/17/2014.


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