Shortness of breath is a red-alert symptom associated with COVID-19. It’s also a characteristic of many other conditions, whether it’s asthma, heart issues, pneumonia or even acid reflux.
For most of us, the pandemic has become a source of anxiety that, for some, reaches an extreme — a panic attack. Worse, people who now experience a panic attack, perhaps fueled by anxiety over COVID-19, might think their shortness of breath, in fact, marks the onset of a coronavirus infection.
Sometimes, it is COVID-19 and not a panic attack. Tragically, a New York City middle-school social studies teacher who was twice refused emergency-room treatment because medical technicians thought she was having a panic attack, died April 27 from complications of COVID-19.
If you have a panic attack, says the National Institute of Mental Health, you might experience:
- Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heartbeat.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking.
- Feelings of impending doom.
- Feelings of being out of control.
A change in your normal breathing pattern during a panic attack can cause shortness of breath. If we hyperventilate, our breathing more shallow, we don’t fill our lungs as we normally do. Difficulty breathing, naturally, only compounds the intense fear of a panic attack.
“People with panic disorder become nervous and are constantly worried that they’re going to have another attack and they don’t know what to do,” says Dr. David Tolin, director of the Institute of Living’s Anxiety Disorders Center, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network. “It becomes a vicious cycle. A person with panic disorder has a fear of fear, so they worry that they’re going to get anxious; and of course they do get anxious, which seems to confirm their worry and it just gets worse and worse.”
The NIMH says generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge.
- Being easily fatigued.
- Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank.
- Being irritable.
- Having muscle tension.
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry.
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep.
Though COVID-19 often causes shortness of breath, it’s typically accompanied by symptoms not associated with a panic attack, like coughing, sneezing, a runny nose and a fever. A panic attack, meanwhile, can happen to anyone, particularly during the isolation and stress of a pandemic.
Ordinarily, says Dr. Tolin, a panic attack should not be a concern. But people who have recurrent attacks might have panic disorder. They should seek professional help, says Dr. Tolin, which can include antidepressant medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“So often, people who have these kinds of problems might think they’re the only one, or that it’s shameful, or that others will view it as a sign of weakness,” says Dr. Tolin. “None of these things are true. The fact of the matter is a lot of people struggle with these kinds of problems.
“But if the symptoms are affecting your quality of life or your ability to do things that are important to you, then it’s time for you to do something about it.”
The Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network is now scheduling virtual-health visits for mental health and addiction services. Call your provider for details. New patients can schedule a virtual visit by calling 1.888.984.2408.
Not feeling well? Call your healthcare provider for guidance and try to avoid going directly to an emergency department or urgent care center, as this could increase the chances of the disease spreading.
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