Twin Cities doctor says panic attacks are on the rise

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For many of us, it’s a stressful time. The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting extra anxiety about our safety, our health and our finances.

One Twin Cities doctor says he’s seen a sudden increase in panic attacks, or "anxiety-induced breathing," but that it’s often disguised as something else.

"It’s something I wasn’t expecting, but after a few weeks of this, I’ve seen the pattern over and over," said Dr. Doug McMahon with the Allergy and Asthma Center of Minnesota.

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McMahon says in recent weeks about 50 to 70% of his new patients have contacted him because they are experiencing anxiety attacks. He says many patients assume they are having an asthma attack because the symptoms are so similar. In both cases, patients complain about shortness of breath. McMahon says one difference is that anxiety-induced breathing typically originates in the patient’s neck area.

"It’s very confusing to people. With asthma, you have a tightening of airways and you can’t get air in or out. What happens in a panic attack, you put tension in your neck muscles and the vocal cords are pinched, so you still have that sense you can’t take full breaths in," he said.

McMahon says in many cases a simple fix is to practice abdominal breathing, which means using your diaphragm to breathe rather than your shoulders and neck muscles.