Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
Anxiety or panic attacks are one of the most common and disabling problems encountered by both mental health professions and general medical practitioners. Thousands of Americans rush to the hospital emergency rooms every day suspecting they are having a heart attack, but medical tests show that their hearts are in sound condition.
This happened with "Joe". Joe had several deadlines to meet. Things get really hectic towards the end of a year at his work, with annual reports, performance appraisals, and projects to be rounded up, all around the same time. One day Joe felt a mild chest pain but forgot all about it as he focused on the project at hand. Driving home Joe experienced a sudden increase in heart rate along with rapid breathing. He felt a hot flash permeate his entire body, leading to profuse perspiration. He felt tingling and numbing in the feet and hands followed by shaking and trembling. Joe was puzzled that he would have hot flashes in some parts of his body and cold chills in others. He felt faintish, somewhat dizzy and nauseated. Joe began to think, "This never happened to me before. I am either going crazy or having a heart attack. What if I die right now here on this road! Nobody to help me here."
Joe felt overwhelming fear, and the symptoms of fast breathing, heart pounding, sweating, and shaking increased. Just then, Joe saw a blue sign that read, "Hospital" and he sped down to the hospital emergency room. At the E.R. they did an arterial blood gas test and EKG to assess the heart function. Upon completion of tests, doctors advised Joe that his heart was in "good" condition and his symptoms were consistent with a panic attack and hyperventilation. He was released to the care of his general physician with no further instruction. Joe was more confused than ever and thought to himself, "If I don't have a heart problem, why did it feel like a heart attack? Does this mean I am going crazy?"
This scenario is actually a very common one and occurs in individuals who have panic attacks and have not had the opportunity too learn about them. Joe was an MBA, not a medical graduate. During a panic attack, people experience symptoms that appear much like those of a heart attack. They believe they are facing a truly life threatening event and until they are medically cleared of any danger, they fear they may be dying of a heart attack.
Even after several panic attacks, a person may still believe that "unlike the last time this time it is for real." When a panic attack is over, patients know that their heart is normal, but during an attack, they cannot think logically. In the panic mode, catastrophic thinking replaces the normal thinking and reasoning ability. The pounding heart deafens the faint voice of the logical mind at such a time. However, after ten to fifteen minutes, which is the average duration of a panic attack, a person can again believe that his or her heart is okay, but he or she wouldn't do that during a panic attack.
The American Heart Association says that body is likely to send one or more of the following warning signals of a heart attack:
Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes.
Pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms.
Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a panic attack is diagnosed by the presence of at least four of the following symptoms: chest pain or pressure on the chest: shortness of breath; dizziness or faintness; sweating; palpitations or accelerated heart rate; nausea; numbness or tingling in one or more parts of the body; hot flushes or chills and rear of dying, going crazy or losing control.
Notice how similar the symptoms of a heart attack are to those of a panic attack! Therefore, it is best to get a thorough medical examination as recommended. You may also find solace in recent research findings that the majority of healthy people occasionally experience some type of occasional heart irregularity such as skipped beat, pounding in the chest or palpitations.
There is no connection between panic attacks and heart disease except that the symptoms of both feel so much alike. Some people after the first panic attack develop intense fear about having a heart attack. They then start monitoring themselves very closely, trying to detect any signs of a heart disease. So, when their heart rate increases which is normal for everyone under excitement, stress or fatigue, they think they are having a heart attack. Then the mere thought of having a heart attack sends the heart and the rest of the body into a frenzy.
Other people who do not suffer from panic attacks also experience similar cardiac changes such as heart palpitations or heart racing, but they don't get alarmed and don't view them as warning signs of a heart attack, stroke or some other life threatening illness.
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