Anxiety with COPD: Panic Attacks

Trigger Warning: Panic attacks are described in this article from a first-person point of view.

My eyes blurred the page I was reading. I looked up and it dawned on me that I was taking deeper and deeper breaths. Inhaling, in-in-in-in, then exhaling out-out-out. Again, in-in-in-in-in, out-out-out-out. Why was I doing that? Why was I suddenly so short of breath?

In-in-in. Out-out-out.

Then my heart jumped. In my chest and my throat. Flutter, flutter, flutter—BAM—a skipped beat.

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In-in-in. Out-out-out. BAM. Flutter-flutter-flutter. In-in-in...

Panic washed over me

I was having a panic attack.

The electric jolt of the fight or flight response hit my stomach. I started shaking. Small tremors hit my arms and legs. They slithered over my back into my chest and head. Shaking. Heart pounding. Gasping.

I shut my eyes. I clung to my breathing. I followed the in-in-in-in like a mantra, trying to anchor to it in a sea of panic.

Failure.

The panic and the fright washed over me. My eyes watered. My mouth filled with bile. I couldn't get my breath. Awash with it all, I struggled to keep my balance. That only made it worse.

Alerting my husband of my panic attack

The rational me stumbled, tried to regain its footing, and found it again for a few drastic seconds before I slipped away altogether. “Mike! I need you. Panic attack.” In those drastic seconds I found my lifeline - my husband.

He found my hand, grasped it, pulled me out of the mire. He wrapped his arms around me, and then he wrapped my life jacket - my medication - around me.

Safe. I was safe.
***

Finding safety and comfort

Slowly, the gentle light returned to my eyes. Warm breezes of golden serenity covered me. As my husband soothed me, my breathing became slow. Regular. My heart and my body were calm. Restful.

My husband asked me why I was so stressed, what happened to cause the attack. I didn't know; mostly these come on for no reason. It could be the weather. It could be reading the news. It could be the overwhelming sense of loss having COPD. It could be everything. And it could be nothing.

Was it caused by stress or COPD? Or both?

The worst attack I ever had was because of an asthmatic flareup. I was working - I typed the transcriptions for different segments and shows on NPR - and started getting short of breath. I continued typing because I was on a tight turnaround deadline. Which made me more anxious. Which made my shortness of breath worse. Which made me panic. Which made the shortness of breath unbearable. Which put me into a full blown panic attack.

I remember ending up in the ER clenching an oxygen mask like it was the hand of an angel. The oxygen streaming down that plastic tubing was the most precious thing to me at that moment. Liquid gold would have been worthless to me. Nothing else existed but breathing.

A vicious cycle of anxiety and COPD

That's the way it can go, that vicious cycle of not being able to breathe and panicking about it. The dyspnea and anxiety make each other worse.

The ER doctor told me that the oxygen didn't really help my breathing or my oxygen levels. He said that it was a prophylactic, something that helped calm me down so that I could begin to breathe better and unwind the cycle. I spent several hours in the ER, but after being given an extremely high dosage albuterol treatment and medication for the anxiety I felt normal again.

Anxiety is a response to my feelings about my condition

Anxiety and panic attacks are responses to the stress I feel having COPD. They are like Dementors, sucking out your intelligence and happiness, leaving fear and worry instead. They are the extremes.

What I worry about

You see, COPD makes me worry. I've always been a worrier; I'm a master at worrying not only about things that have happened, but also about things that might happen, about things that haven't happened, and things that just won't happen. I could sit down and write a very long list of items I worry over having COPD. And on many levels, I fear a lot about having COPD. The limitations I face can be overwhelming. I'm afraid of not getting better and only getting worse.

And, to be completely honest, I fear death.

Working to let it all go

In the past few years since I've started having panic attacks, I have learned a lot about them. Since I refuse to live in a constant state of fear and worry, I have learned how to stay calm and to be positive.

My therapist has helped me form a great mental health plan. It is full of positivity and activities that soothe me. I do what makes me feel good. Music plays a big part in this. I've found that piano and/or cello pieces are my favorites: Chopin's Nocturnals, Vivaldi's and Boccherini's Sonatas, and anything by Ludovico Einaudi. Visual arts also play a huge role. Whether it's my photography or working with colored pencils, creating something beautiful is very rewarding. I keep my space as nice and ordered and pretty as I can. I sit in the sun as often as possible. I also take prescribed anti-anxiety medication and talk to a therapist.

It has been difficult, so difficult. But now - most times, anyway - I can take that huge load of negativity and do what I thought I never would: I let it go.

I still have panic attacks, and probably always will. But only rarely now. I am in a much better state of mind.

You aren't alone

If you suffer from these, please know that you are not alone. So many of us COPD patients have anxiety, for so many reasons. And know that there are actions you can take to get help. Talk to your doctor or therapist about a good plan.

You have a tough road ahead but at the end of it the reward is totally worth it. You can do it.

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