Is COVID-19 anxiety causing panic attacks?

From Our BlogMental Wellness section | July 22, 2020

By Lauren Keegan

Sydney-based psychologist and freelance health writer. She has worked in the public mental health sector in Australia for ten years. You can find her at

Anxious Woman

Photo by Ivan Key on INKINK

We now live in a rapidly changing, highly unpredictable world. A global pandemic has caused widespread panic and fear. Mental health issues are on the rise. Is COVID-19 really linked to an increase in anxiety and can it potentially cause panic attacks?

A review of the latest literature about mental health and COVID-19 highlights anxiety as a recurring theme in the psychological impact of the pandemic. “The fear of COVID-19 is also related to its novelty and the uncertainties about how the outbreak might worsen,” the authors’ explained.

That’s the thing about anxiety. It feeds on uncertainties. In the current climate, this loss of control can be overwhelming. Panic-inducing. We’ve witnessed this panic out in the wild. With restrictive measures and lockdowns across the globe, panic buying of food and toiletries has led to a decline in basic supplies.

However, this panic not only occurs in public, it also presents on a deeply personal level. It can creep up on you quietly and subtly. When thinking about the virus, or being exposed to a media headline, you may feel a tightness in the chest. You may find it difficult to breathe, for some, it may feel as if you’re having a heart attack. It’s a particular type of fear response where there’s a sudden surge of intense fear that peaks within minutes. It’s accompanied by psychological and physical symptoms such as palpitations, trembling, nausea, dizziness and chills. You may feel as if you’re losing control or that you’re going to die.

It’s a frightening experience.

Occasional panic attacks are actually quite common and the onset usually occurs during a stressful time in a person’s life. A panic disorder may be diagnosed if the panic attacks are recurrent and have a significant impact on your life. In any given year, panic disorder affects 2.7% of the United States’ population, and 1.6% of the Canadian population.

While we don’t know whether panic attacks are on the rise, we do know anxiety levels have swelled since the Coronavirus outbreak. Between March and April 2020, 6854 Canadian and American adults participated in an online survey about their level of distress during the pandemic. Only 2% of participants reported they’d been diagnosed with the virus, while 6% knew someone who had been infected. Yet, 28% of the sample reported increased anxiety.

“Our findings suggest that the psychological footprint of COVID-19 is likely to be more substantial than the medical footprint. That is, at the time of the study the number of people emotionally affected by COVID 19 far exceeded the number of people who had been infected,” the authors’ deduce.

Let’s be clear here, anxiety in the current climate is absolutely normal. It is expected during a time of upheaval. However, for some people, these feelings of anxiety and panic are having a severe impact on their lives.

Creatively termed ‘COVID stress syndrome’ and ‘coronaphobia,’ it seems the scientific community is driven to make sense of the increased levels of psychological distress at this time. It’s comes as no surprise that we are so driven to make sense if it all, because once we know what we’re dealing with, we can then find solutions.

One promising solution has been the change in the service delivery provided by mental health services. Shifting to online and telehealth support, text messaging, phone apps and emails have all been shown to be valuable methods of mental health service delivery.


  1. Chakraborty, N. (2020), The COVID ‐19 pandemic and its impact on mental health. Prog. Neurol. Psychiatry, 24: 21-24. doi:10.1002/pnp.666
  2. Taylor S, Landry CA, Paluszek MM, Fergus TA, McKay D, Asmundson GJG. COVID stress syndrome: Concept, structure, and correlates. Depression and Anxiety. 2020;1–9.
  3. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005; 62(6):617-627.
  4. Government of Canada. The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada, 2006. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Catalogue no.: HP5-19/2006E.

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