Medical Matters > Mental Health: Anxiety and Panic Attacks

ME Essential Autumn 2018

Question

I’ve always been a rather anxious person but this has become more noticeable since developing ME. I also have occasional panic attacks – which never happened before. Is this all part of having this illness? Or am I just being unlucky?

Answer

The simple answer to your question is that symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks are not part of ME/CFS. But they can sometimes occur when you have ME/ CFS – as they can in any long term medical condition where someone is having to cope with a wide range of social and emotional components in addition to all the very disabling physical symptoms.

Panic attacks can be more serious and frightening and while self-help measures (especially learning relaxation techniques) can be very effective in helping to deal with an attack and can reduce the frequency of attacks, this is something that you ought to speak to your GP about if they continue. This is because there are drug treatments that may be worth trying – as well as psychological therapies that can help. So please make an appointment with your GP if symptoms continue or further panic attacks occur.

Dr Lisa Dvorjetz, Psychology Adviser to the ME Association:

Anxiety is a feeling of unease. It can range from mild to severe, and can include feelings of worry and fear. Panic is the most severe form of anxiety. Panic attacks are the sudden and often intense reaction to fear or anxiety that can trigger specific physical reactions in the body. Panic attacks can be very intense and cause shortness of breath, a racing heartbeat, chest pain, a feeling of dread or a fear of dying. They can feel very frightening but they are not dangerous. When anxiety or panic attacks affect your daily life and cause significant distress, you need to seek help and support.

To better understand anxiety and panic attacks we first need to consider how the brain reacts in certain situations and how this reaction leads to symptoms. The brain controls the autonomic nervous system that in turn regulates bodily functions – such as heart-rate, blood flow, digestion, breathing, urination, sexual arousal. It is the primary mechanism for the ‘fight or flight’ response and is activated when we perceive danger – whether it is real or not. Stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol are released which stimulate the body and cause an increase in heart-rate, breathing, sweating, and dilation of pupils. This survival mechanism impedes other brain functions such as those that are involved with decision-making, thinking clearly, and problem solving. It some situations this response can be helpful, but in others it can have a negative effect and result in the feelings we associate with anxiety and in panic attacks.

More information

The ME Association has detailed information relating to mental health issues, written by Dr Shepherd and Dr Dvorjetz (Psychology Adviser):

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER

Medical Matters is for information purposes only. The answers provided by Dr Shepherd and the ME Association’s other expert advisers should not be construed as medical advice. We recommend that any information you deem relevant is discussed with your GP as soon as possible. It is important to obtain advice from a GP who is in charge of your clinical care, who knows you well, and who can consider other likely causes for symptoms. Seek personalised medical advice whenever a new symptom arises, or an existing symptom worsens. Don't assume that new or worsened symptoms are a result of having ME/CFS.

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