9 Ways to Manage Panic Attacks When You Have COPD

Breathe easier with these tips.

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COPD is associated with high levels of anxiety that can negatively affect your quality of life. Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear accompanied by several physical symptoms. While many people get panic attacks, people with COPD seem to be especially prone to them. As anxiety builds, it may contribute to severe breathlessness.

Symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Severe shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered
  • Chest pain, tightness, or discomfort
  • Fear of dying
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Hot flashes
  • Chills

Below are some ways you may be able to diffuse a panic attack when you feel one coming on.

Breathing Exercises

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Often described as "taking your breath away," a panic attack can make you feel like you are suffocating, hyperventilating, or choking. That's why it is extremely important when you recognize the sensation of panic, you begin to focus on your breathing. If you can control your breathing during a panic attack, you can usually get through it in a relatively short period of time. Start with the following technique:

  • While relaxing your shoulders, inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. When you inhale, your abdomen should expand outward and you should feel very little expansion of your chest. This is known as diaphragmatic breathing.
  • While keeping your jaw relaxed, purse your lips like you are going to blow out a candle. With pursed lips, breathe out slowly through your mouth. This is known as pursed-lip breathing.
  • Repeat this breathing exercise until you feel calmer.

To have better control over your breathing, practice breathing exercises on a regular basis.

Take Medication

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Medication can be extremely effective in managing panic disorders and panic attacks. In COPD, antidepressants are sometimes preferred over anti-anxiety medications, but which medication works best for you should be discussed with your doctor.​

Although you may experience a worsening of breathlessness during a panic attack, the emergency use of bronchodilators, which may increase heart rate and intensify anxiety, is discouraged. Instead, try taking slow, deep breaths as mentioned above.

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

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Research suggests that mindfulness meditation―a practice dedicated to focusing your mind on the present―can help treat anxiety disorders as well as relieve stress.

De-Stress With Relaxation Techniques

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Relaxation is an important part of reducing anxiety levels and preventing panic attacks. In some instances, practicing relaxation techniques may help you manage a panic attack that has already begun. Treat yourself kindly, and don't feel bad about prioritizing self-care during particularly stressful periods of time.

Visualize Your Way to Calm

Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder.
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Visualization is a powerful technique that allows you to use your imagination to help you unwind. Visualization prevents you from focusing on the worry and fear of having a full-blown panic attack. It guides you by focusing your mind on serene, peaceful images, instead of those that may cause you to feel panicked.

Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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Panic attacks occur in COPD when uncomfortable physical sensations (shortness of breath, increased heart rate) are catastrophically misinterpreted. This means that instead of knowing that these symptoms are not life-threatening and you have the ability to overcome them, you believe you are unable to survive them. Working with a therapist and trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk-based therapy, can help treat anxiety symptoms and panic attacks.

Stop Your Negative Thoughts

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Thought stopping is a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that involves consciously commanding your negative thoughts to stop and replacing them with more realistic, positive ones.

Check Out a Support Groups

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Support groups may be a useful part of managing COPD and panic attacks because they let you know that you are not alone. They can also help you find new ways to deal with anxiety, panic, and COPD.

Practice Daily

Like anything you want to get good at, practice makes perfect. To get the most out of the techniques mentioned above, practice them on a regular basis―don't wait until you are in the middle of a panic attack to try and remember how to do them. Practicing these techniques several times a day, every day, will help you easily recall them during a panic attack when you need them the most.

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Article Sources

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  • Livermore N, Sharpe L, McKenzie D. Panic attacks and panic disorder in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a cognitive behavioral perspective. Respir Med. 2010 Sep;104(9):1246-53.
  • Miller JJ, Fletcher K, Kabat-Zinn J. Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 1995 May;17(3):192-200.