Panic and pandemic: Narrative review of the literature on the links and risks of panic disorder as a consequence of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic

Encephale. 2021 Feb;47(1):38-42. doi: 10.1016/j.encep.2020.08.001. Epub 2020 Aug 10.


Although the "panic" word has been abundantly linked to the SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) pandemic in the press, in the scientific literature very few studies have considered whether the current epidemic could predispose to the onset or the aggravation of panic attacks or panic disorder. Indeed, most studies thus far have focused on the risk of increase and aggravation of other psychiatric disorders as a consequence of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Yet, risk of onset or aggravation of panic disorder, especially the subtype with prominent respiratory symptoms, which is characterized by a fear response conditioning to interoceptive sensations (e.g., respiratory), and hypervigilance to these interoceptive signals, could be expected in the current situation. Indeed, respiratory symptoms, such as coughs and dyspnea, are among the most commonly associated with the SARS-CoV-2 (59-82% and 31-55%, respectively), and respiratory symptoms are associated with a poor illness prognosis. Hence, given that some etiological and maintenance factors associated with panic disorder - i.e., fear conditioning to abnormal breathing patterns attributable or not to the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), as well as hypervigilance towards breathing abnormalities - are supposedly more prevalent, one could expect an increased risk of panic disorder onset or aggravation following the COVID-19 pandemic in people who were affected by the virus, but also those who were not. In people with the comorbidity (i.e., panic disorder or panic attacks and the COVID-19), it is particularly important to be aware of the risk of hypokalemia in specific at-risk situations or prescriptions. For instance, in the case of salbutamol prescription, which might be overly used in patients with anxiety disorders and COVID-19, or in patients presenting with diarrhea and vomiting. Hypokalemia is associated with an increased risk of torsade de pointe; thus, caution is required when prescribing specific psychotropic drugs, such as the antidepressants citalopram and escitalopram, which are first-line treatments for panic disorder, but also hydroxyzine, aiming at anxiety relief. The results reviewed here highlight the importance of considering and further investigating the impact of the current pandemic on the diagnosis and treatment of panic disorder (alone or comorbid with the COVID-19).

Keywords: COVID-19; Panic attack; Panic disorder; SARS-Cov-2.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Panic Disorder / epidemiology
  • Panic Disorder / etiology*
  • Panic Disorder / psychology*