Iris Mini: Recognizing Panic Symptoms When Coping with Cancer

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks happen when there is a sudden onset of overwhelming fear and anxiety. They often last for between 5 and 20 minutes, and have a clear trajectory: the panic heightens, then decreases and eventually ends. Sometimes, panic attacks happen in relation to an underlying event or thought that causes the fear or anxiety, but other times panic attacks can appear to happen at random.

Do Other People Living with Cancer Have Panic Attacks?

When a cancer diagnosis and treatment become a part of life, panic and panic attack symptoms can happen. It is important to understand some of the reasons panic attacks occur and what you can do to help yourself.

Why Do Panic Attacks Happen?

Physical reasons:

  • Different types of cancer and tumors can make you more vulnerable to panic symptoms, including tumors of the adrenal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas or thyroid. 

  • Cancers of the lung, brain, and spinal cord can share some physiological symptoms with anxiety and therefore can make people feel panicked. 

  • Taking certain medications (such as steroids) or withdrawing from medications, if they are stopped abruptly, can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and panic. 

Mental/emotional factors that can make people more prone to panic symptoms: 

  • Family history of anxiety and/or panic attacks

  • Major life stress, such as a recent cancer diagnosis or change in cancer staging or treatment

  • A recent traumatic event, such as sexual assault or a serious accident

  • Major changes in your life, like divorce, a new child, or the death of someone important to you 

  • Smoking or excessive caffeine intake

  • History of physical or sexual abuse

How to Recognize Panic Symptoms

Symptoms of panic can include:

  • Feeling short of breath or like you can’t catch your breath

  • Your heart racing or feeling like your heart is beating out of your chest

  • Feeling dizzy, like the room is spinning, or like you can’t stand up without needing to sit down right away

  • Tightness in your chest

  • Feeling as if something is in your throat or feeling like you’re choking

  • Shaky hands

  • Feeling suddenly sweaty or clammy

  • A sense of “I’ve got to get out of here,” regardless of where you are

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • Feeling as though you are detached from the world around you (sometimes described as “tunnel vision")

  • Becoming flushed and red in the chest and neck and/or face 

  • Racing thoughts that won’t stop, like “I think I’m going to die” or “I think I’m going crazy”

What to Do When You Recognize Panic Symptoms

If you experience any of the above symptoms, your first call should be to your medical team. Certain medical issues can cause the above symptoms, and a medical reason for the symptom should be ruled out first. If any of the symptoms with an asterisk are occurring, you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room, as these symptoms could be a sign of an urgent medical issue requiring immediate attention. If other symptoms of the panic do not subside within 10 minutes, they can be a sign of an urgent medical issue.

If you recognize that the symptoms you are experiencing are likely due to a panic attack, use one of the below strategies to help you. Remember: panic attacks end. They do not last forever, even if it feels as if they will.  

3 Ways to Reduce Panic Symptoms

Knowing the symptoms that can lead to a panic attack and implementing the below strategies can help reduce the time you feel panicky and help your mind and body feel more in control when panic symptoms arise. 

  • Focus on your breath. Placing a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly, imagine you are inflating your belly like a balloon on your in-breath, and then very slowly breathe out and notice the balloon deflating on your out-breath. It can help to count – 4 counts for your breath in, and 8 counts for your breath out helps to trigger your body’s relaxation response. Do this breathing for 5 breaths and notice if anything has changed with how you feel. Continue with the breathing for as long as you need to help yourself find a sense of calm. 

  • Flip the script. Recognizing what is happening and letting yourself know you’re going to get through it (instead of feeling helpless about it) can calm some of the racing thoughts that happen with panic attacks. An example of what you might say to yourself: “I am getting panicky – this feeling will pass. I will get through this. This is temporary, will eventually end, and I will be able to be calm again.” 

  • Distract yourself. Using one of your five senses, find something that will move you from your thoughts and change what you are feeling. Actions or activities like petting an animal, putting on music, changing your environment by moving outside or going inside, moving your body by walking or stretching, having someone speak calmly and slowly to you, or humming to yourself can change what you’re feeling and thinking and help distract your mind and body from the panic symptoms. 

You are not alone in dealing with panic – a diagnosis of cancer can be anxiety-provoking, and there are ways you can support yourself to reduce your feelings of panic. Consider making an appointment with your oncology team to let them know you are experiencing panic attacks. You may also consider making an appointment with the Iris mental health team to talk about ways to reduce your panic symptoms.

Anxiety: American Cancer Society

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of your Life by Lucinda Bassett 

Coping with Cancer: DBT Skills to Manage Your Emotions--and Balance Uncertainty with Hope by Elizabeth Cohn Stuntz and Marsha M. Linehan