COVID-19 Mental Health

Anxiety and panic attacks

By Fiona Bugler • 19th April 2020

Anxiety is on the increase, over four in five adults in Great Britain (84.2 per cent) said they were very worried or somewhat worried about the effect that COVID-19 is having on their life right now.

This was from The UK’s office of national statistics published results of a survey, Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain, published on April 16th 2020. Key findings included the following:

  • Just over half of adults (53.1 per cent) said it was affecting their wellbeing.
  • Nearly half of adults (46.9 per cent) reported high levels of anxiety.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, anxiety disorders affect about one in 10 people in the UK — and that’s in normal times. Now could be the first time many people really find anxiety, depression and panic get a grip.

Here’s how to spot the symptoms and find solutions and treatments.


Anxiety is the feeling of fear we get when faced with threatening or difficult situations. Anxiety is normal and can help us to avoid danger. It makes us more alert and gives us the energy to deal with problems. But if the anxiety is too strong or is there all the time, it can be a real problem.

Is anxiety different from depression?

Anxiety has quite different symptoms from depression; if you’re depressed you’ll suffer from low mood, reduced energy and lose interest in things, but if you’re anxious you’re agitated, have increased energy and can maintain your interests.

People with depression are self-critical and regret past behaviour, but anxious people worry about the future.

However, if you’re anxious you may stop doing things and become isolated and depressed as a result.

Anxiety only becomes a problem if it’s interfering with your daily life.

Panic attacks

A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense anxiety that can come from nowhere. Whilst feeling panic and anxiety is normal in stressful or dangerous situations, people who suffer from panic attacks can suffer from these feelings at any time, for no apparent reason.

Symptoms peak within 10 minutes and usually subside after half an hour. They are not dangerous but can feel very frightening.

How common are panic attacks?

One in 10 people will have a panic attack at some point in their life, one in 20 will have recurrent attacks and one in 50 (two per cent) will suffer from panic disorder — defined as regular, unexpected panic attacks. Symptoms usually begin before the age of 20.

Physical symptoms for panic attacks

Symptoms are experienced by the body producing the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenaline and include:

  • heart palpitations
  • shaking
  • sweating
  • breathlessness
  • rapid breathing
  • tingling in the fingers and around the mouth
  • dry mouth

Is it a heart attack?

About a quarter of people who go to an emergency department with chest pain, thinking they’re having a heart attack, are actually having a panic attack.

Heart attacks are characterised by crushing central chest pain — usually on the left and also in the arm — but in a panic attack there is no pain. Heart attack symptoms will get worse but a panic attack will usually subside after half an hour.

Psychological symptoms of panic attacks

People experiencing a panic attack will feel intensely worried, agitated and fearful. They often describe feeling like they are going to die or frightened they’re ‘going crazy’ or losing control.

What causes anxiety and panic attacks?

No-one knows for sure — but there are certain triggers. These include:

Your genes: Some of us are born worriers. This tendency might be inherited.

Stressful events: Divorce, money worries, bereavement, redundancy and exams are obvious triggers for anxiety, but usually when the problem disappears, so does the anxiety. But other traumatic events such as car crashes, assaults and fires can leave you feeling nervous and anxious for months or years — known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Drugs: Illegal highs from amphetamines, LSD or ecstasy can make you anxious — as can excess caffeine.


If you’ve only ever had one panic attack, your doctor is unlikely to prescribe treatment, as 50 per cent of patients never experience another attack, but if you have a recurrent problem you may need either drugs or psychological therapy or a combination of both.

Psychological therapies

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or talking therapy, can alleviate feelings of anxiety and panic and help change how you think and act. CBT focuses on current problems rather than things that have happened in the past.


Anti-depressants: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors are frequently prescribed for people with anxiety who suffer from panic attacks. They work even though you’re not depressed, and treatment is said to be effective in around 65 per cent of patients.

Beta blockers: These can be prescribed in low doses to control shaking etc. If psychological therapies are combined with anti-depressants, 85 per cent of patients respond, research has found.

Mindfulness: Research has shown that mindfulness helps us reduce anxiety and depression. It teaches us how to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than being reactive and unaware of the emotions driving our decision-making. Want to understand why mindfulness works, check out this great article by former heroin addict, now author and inspirational speaker Brian Pennie, The Biology of Mindfulness and Mindlessness — A Neuroscientist’s Perspective.

Check out why nature is the perfect antidote to anxiety, in this article by Jane Courtnell.

Fiona Bugler

Fiona is the creator of all things editorial, she’s a journalist with a life-long passion for health, fitness and wellbeing. For more than a decade she worked with business leaders and large groups as a personal trainer and running coach and this background informs the content she creates.

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