Tips for Mesothelioma Patients to Help Manage Panic Attacks

Health & Wellness

Most people with mesothelioma feel symptoms of anxiety from time to time. Studies show between 10% and 30% of cancer patients experience the frequency or intensity of anxiety symptoms to meet criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or post traumatic stress disorder. Those with more advanced types or stages of cancer and those whose treatments aren’t effective are at higher risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety. 

When we feel threatened with harm our body activates its fight, flight or freeze response. This response gives us the strength and energy to run as fast as we can or fight for our lives when threatened. 

During this adaptive response, our body is flooded with hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which cause changes in breathing, heart rate and other physiological changes. However, a panic attack occurs when our fight, flight or freeze response is activated when there is no immediate threat to our safety. Our body is flooded with these activating hormones, revving our body up to run or fight for our life, yet there is no real threat to respond to. 

While panic attacks aren’t very common among mesothelioma patients, they do sometimes happen. It can be helpful to recognize the signs of a panic attack and what may cause one.

What Can Trigger a Panic Attack for Mesothelioma Patients?

Situational triggers may lead to increased anxiety or a panic attack like hearing news that your mesothelioma has progressed. You may also experience panic if you feel claustrophobic while lying in an MRI machine or struggle with being tethered to a chemotherapy chair for hours during an infusion. 

Your own personal history with anxiety or panic attacks may predispose you to having panic attacks while dealing with mesothelioma. Uncontrolled pain or having a history of medical trauma may also increase the risk of having a panic attack.

What Does Having a Panic Attack Feel Like?

A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of anxiety symptoms. While those symptoms usually only last for 10 to 20 minutes, it can be very scary because your body is giving you signals that indicate a serious health crisis. 

Common symptoms of anxiety include: 

  • Dizziness
  • Fear that you’re dying
  • Jitteriness 
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea or gastrointestinal upset
  • Pounding heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in chest

Most people report that feeling these symptoms is uncomfortable and alarming if they don’t recognize them as anxiety. Some anxiety symptoms can mimic those of very serious medical issues such as an asthma attack or heart attack. 

What people who have panic attacks say about their experience:

  • “I thought I was dying.” 
  • “My heart was pounding very hard, and it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest.” 
  • “I thought I was going to pass out.”
  • “I just had to get out of the grocery store and go sit in my car.”

When dealing with a serious medical issue like mesothelioma, it’s especially important to discuss your symptoms with your physician. They may run some tests to rule out any issues with your heart, lungs and other systems before diagnosing you with panic attacks.

3 Key Tips for Managing Panic Attacks 

Your doctor may recommend counseling and medication to help manage your panic attacks. Panic attacks are amenable to treatment. 

For immediate relief of panic attack symptoms, you may find these tips helpful:

1. Deep Breathing

Breathing this way will activate the calming response in your body. This will release hormones that counteract the symptoms of the panic attack.

2. Positive Self-Talk

Instead, try telling yourself things like:

  • “Even though my body feels terrible right now, I know that I am fine and that this will pass.” 
  • “I am safe now.” 
  • “I have survived every panic attack I have ever had, and I’ll get through this one, too.”

It can be challenging to manage panic attack symptoms when you’re having them, but giving yourself encouragement can help. It can shift the narrative for your mind and break the loop that negative self-talk can fuel.

3. Grounding exercises

Grounding techniques turn your focus away from your panic symptoms and onto something real around you. These mindfulness techniques can help you feel more in control.

Suggestions for alternatives to focus on:

  • Count the number of pictures on the wall or the number of trees you can see. 
  • Look for 10 blue things around you.
  • Find something soft like a blanket or pillow and run your hands over the fabric or squeeze the pillow. 
  • Drink a cool glass of water and pay attention to how the water feels going down. 
  • Take a shower and just notice the streams of water hitting your body.

If you try to manage your panic symptoms using any of these coping strategies and they don’t help, talk to your physician and/or a mental health professional. They can help you develop an individualized treatment plan for your panic symptoms. 

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