Is Anxiety Life Threatening?

chest painPanic resulting from anxiety can feel like a terrible loss of control and can make you wonder if your life is in danger. If you have experienced a panic reaction (attack), these questions have probably run through your mind: Am I going to die? Is there anyone around to help me?

With anxiety, usually the individual’s mind races along with physiological symptoms (such as increased heart rate and sweating). When having a panic reaction, people often fear dying, going “crazy,” fainting, and public humiliation. This can make them question what is actually going on and what it means. Many think, at some point during the panic attack, that they are going to die. The physiological symptoms can mimic a heart attack (shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, and tingling). In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic, according to and other sources. What is actually happening is your body is reacting to an increase in adrenaline.

So what happens when you experience anxiety? Say an event is coming up or you are in a situation that triggers a reaction. When this reaction starts, you feel like you are losing control. This accelerates your mind (thoughts) and your heartbeat. Your body is now preparing for the “danger” that is coming. It is like pushing a panic button. The warning lights and sounds are triggered, and the system (your body) prepares for what might occur. Your mouth becomes dry and your hands shake. Chemicals (such as adrenaline) begin to flow through your body, signaling the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response that is hard-wired into each of us to help us survive. This response mobilizes each system to deal with the threat and is directing blood flow toward the areas that need it while limiting other bodily functions (such as digestion).

Once you start to notice the changes in your body, you may make the situation worse. You may start to focus on your shallow breathing and the tightness in your chest, and you may worry more, intensifying your symptoms. This, in turn, may increase both your anxiety and your symptoms. The more afraid you get, the more your body produces adrenaline to deal with the threat. Anxiety creates distortions in this normal safety reaction, producing a situation that, when you are reacting to it, feels like a threat. Once the panic subsides, it is difficult to explain why you reacted as strongly as you did.

While in a panic reaction, attempt to focus your attention onto something else. It could be the song on the radio or the birds in the sky. Find something to focus on that is not about what is going on in your body. Once you begin to slow down your thoughts, your body will eventually return to a non-crisis state and you will feel more normal and less out-of-control.

Anxiety can be unpleasant and scary but is not life threatening, even though it may feel like it is. It is also highly responsive to treatment. A variety of treatments including medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes can help you manage your anxiety more effectively. Lifestyle changes may include increasing aerobic exercise, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and learning individual stress-management tools. These tools may include yoga, tai chi, or meditation, learning how to take a deep breath, or learning to walk away.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Teresa Collett, PsyD, LMFT, Worry Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • cara

    May 14th, 2014 at 7:39 AM

    You would say though that a lifetime of living like this could be detrimental to your health though, right? I mean, this may not pose an immediate threat if we are talking one or two episodes here or there but it could be exacerbated when this is something that you have been putting the body and mind through for a long time. I don’t know that it would make you kill over with a heart attack but I would suspect that there would be some kind of life changing things that happen to the body when you have experienced these attacks for a long time, and we are talking events that are not necessarily positive in manner.

  • Hollis

    May 14th, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    Then this panic is all in your head?

  • Tennyson

    May 15th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    So it may not be that life threatening but I can promise you that while you are having a panic attack it sure does feel like it is going to kill you. Literally for me it feels like what I would assume a heart attack would feel like and there have been times when I have become so scared out of my mind that this was the way that it was going to end that I have had to call 911 to come out and check on me. I know that they hate that but it feels so serious and crushing that I know that one day I am going to have to do something serious to stop this.

  • Gina

    May 16th, 2014 at 6:01 PM

    I am sure that there are times when it must feel this way, but believe me when I say that there is a way out of that kind of darkness.

    I have lived that life and I never want to go back to those overwhelming feelings like I can’t leave the house or like there is nothing that could save me.

    But what saved me was finding someone who understood what I wa going through, who knew that there was light to be found at the end of the tunnel and who helped me see that light for myself.

    It was a long journey and sometimes it feels like it could be very easy to slip back into those feelings but now I know that I have the support so that this does not have to happen to me again.

  • Wayne L

    May 17th, 2014 at 5:57 AM

    Anxiety can cause you to have a consistently elevated heart race and pulse. That cannot be good for the body, so why isn’t there some validity given to the fact that this could cause you to have health risks as a result? Not to mention the depression and stress that can also go hand in hand with constant anxiety, I am telling you there is nothing healthy about living like this.

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