Feeling anxious? You’re not alone: Panic attacks on the rise during pandemic

Medical Watch

Panic attacks are rising during the pandemic.

For those who experience them, like Bryan Dudek, the world seems to go dark, the chest gets tight.

“I would feel like I couldn’t breathe,” Dudek said. “I would feel like I was going to have a heart attack –  shakiness, just out of control, didn’t know what was really going on. (I was) very scared.”

On one occasion he went to the emergency room.

“I went through tons of testing just trying to figure out what was going on,” he said. “And it ended up just purely being a panic attack.”

But even though the symptoms are rooted in the mind, they do manifest themselves physically.

Ashley Senderak is a Licensed clinical professional counselor and the associate director of child programming at Compass Health Center

“The brain is triggered as if we were in the woods with a bear. And when we have a basic situation at home, our brain is triggering us as a false alarm,” she said.  “So it’s increasing our physical symptoms just as if we were encountering a bear. And that’s what makes it the most scary because it’s such a fast surge of symptoms that make the client extremely afraid. And then the mental health, the brain starts thinking, ‘What’s happening? Am I dying?’ And then gloom and doom just spirals. And it keeps on moving.”

And while the instinct for most is to have someone sit down and tell them to calm down, it’s the worst advice.

“You get told that a lot, ‘You’re fine. Relax. You’re fine.’ A lot of the time it just gets me a little more worked up because it’s like just leave me alone,” Dudek said. “Let me work through it. You’re not helping by telling me I’m just fine because you don’t feel that you were just fine.”

“Panic. It’s a lot of uncertainty and really what we want to teach patients is, you can tolerate uncertainty,” Senderak said. “And so instead of saying, ‘You’ll be ok, you are safe,’ we like to say, ‘You’re uncomfortable, it may or may not feel good, and guess what? You’ll tolerate it and get through it shortly.’”

And since we don’t know how long the COVID-19 threat, or the isolation and frustration that comes with quarantine, will last and potentially trigger panic, experts say just know you are not alone.

“No one loves uncertainty and that uncertainty is at an all-time high,” Senderak said. “So I think a lot of people in general, whether you have high anxiety or not, are just really struggling to manage what does the future look like – whether it’s in three days, a week, a month … Lots of panic symptoms are on the rise. Lots of people are coming in (and say) “I don’t know what’s wrong but I just feel anxious.’”

Have a doctor check out the physical symptoms because it will make you feel better that nothing else is wrong. Then go to a therapist to get the proper mental health treatment.

“Anxiety is such a unique diagnosis. It’s so general everyone has it,” Senderak said. “We have it to get up out of bed and get through our day. But when it becomes clinical, it’s a nice discussion for people to realize it’s treatable. And that’s why I love treating it because the standard exposure-response treatment for it is so amazing. It works so well. And these clients see progress so fast. That is what is the most rewarding part for them.”

“You cannot control things that are out of your control, so you have to be ok living with the fact that you have to deal with this for a long time,” Dudek said. “Luckily, I’ve been able to learn how to live with it.”

If you don’t want to leave the house or enjoy the things that typically give you comfort or joy, and if COVID swirls nonstop in your mind, that could be a sign anxiety is out of control and therapy or medication is necessary.

More information at Compass Health Center’s website

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