Is Panic Life Threatening?

storm on the horizonIn my last article for GoodTherapy.org, we discussed how anxiety in and of itself is not life threatening. It is important to separate this from the experience of the individual undergoing a panic reaction. When you are experiencing anxiety, it may feel serious or even life threatening. Your heart may race, you may have multiple thoughts going on at the same time, and your chest may feel tight and restrictive as you gasp for air. It certainly does not feel pleasant.

When you are experiencing a panic reaction and think you are going to die, try to remind yourself that you will not die from the panic itself. Keep telling yourself, over and over, that you will not actually die. This can help slow down your mind so you can focus on things you have more control over: your thoughts and reactions.

So, then, is anxiety just in your head? Does having a consistently elevated heart rate and pulse day after day not affect you in the long term? Is a lifetime of experiencing anxiety not detrimental to your health?

Anxiety is not just in your head, as many people who do not experience anxiety believe. It is easy to minimize the significance of an individual having a panic reaction because, to the outside observer, it may seem like something “trivial” or “an overreaction” to a situation. Anxiety is irrational in nature. Even so, it impacts the person experiencing anxiety as if it is a real threat.

When anxiety occurs, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for preparing your body for physical or mental activities. It triggers your fight-or-flight response by increasing blood flow, dilating pupils, accelerating heart rate and breathing, and increasing blood pressure and perspiration. It is hard to write off these changes in your body as a false alarm. When your body responds in this manner, it can amplify your anxiety, which in turn can signal the sympathetic system to release even more chemicals. It is important to remember that chemicals are released in the body to prepare for the “battle” even if that battle never comes.

Your body has just gone through a panic reaction. Your muscles feel exhausted and you feel drained. Once the sympathetic system relaxes, your body will resume its regular functioning.

After experiencing a panic reaction, the person with anxiety may spend enormous amounts of time worrying about another panic reaction happening again. The person may feel as if he or she must prepare for the next “battle,” but many people simply worry about another occurrence and never develop a plan of action. This fear of recurrence can lead the person to avoid places and things that create worry. When the individual limits where he or she can go or what he/she can do, the person begins a cycle of anxiety that can have long-term effects on his/her life and health.

According to Harvard Health Publications, “evidence suggests that people with anxiety … are at greater risk for developing a number of chronic medical conditions,” such as heart disease and gastrointestinal issues. Symptoms of these medical conditions can increase the risk of death.

Knowing that prolonged exposure to anxiety reactions impacts our bodies, it is important to find ways to minimize the effects of anxiety on our lives and our overall health. The good news is that anxiety is highly responsive to treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to work well at helping individuals with anxiety manage it better. If you are struggling with anxiety, find a therapist in your area who specializes in CBT and start taking control.

Remember, again, that panic reactions will not kill you. Calm yourself as best you can and then look for strategies to help manage your anxiety more effectively. Even though the immediate reaction of panic, in and of itself, won’t kill you, the cumulative effect of panic on your body can take a toll.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Teresa Collett, PsyD, therapist in Silverdale, Washington

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

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  • Grayson

    Grayson

    June 16th, 2014 at 3:58 PM

    I had a panic attack once and I seriously thought that I was having a heart attack
    I even went to the doctor and they did an EKG just to check and make sure

  • Sal

    Sal

    June 17th, 2014 at 4:15 AM

    What I was thinking was exactly what summed this all up: that it might not be the one incident that will get you but over time reacting to stress in this way could give your overall health quite the beating. You might not know it til years down the road just how much your physical health has been harmed by your inability to manage panic and stress and anxiety in a way that did not hurt you so much. I am not blaming, but I would like to show some encouragement for those of you who do live with this to tell you that there is help out there for you. You don’t have to think that this is managing your symptoms and that it all goes away once the panic attack lessens. That is not true, you are still damaging your body and could look for other ways that were not so harmful to you.

  • whitt

    whitt

    June 17th, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    This could be one of those vicious cycles where you begin to worry and then you go into panic mode and then you panic even more and that makes the worrry and the anxiety even worse. There are some ways that you can control this, with breathing exercises, and then just some self talk, talking yourself down from the ledge so to speak.
    Easy to say all of this when you are not in the moment but they are some good ideas to help manage this fear.

  • jamie

    jamie

    June 18th, 2014 at 9:45 AM

    Panic attacks make me feel like i’m dying

  • Jade

    Jade

    June 19th, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    If this is something that is determiend to have long term health effects then I wonder what the best ways to treat this would be. makes me curious is it better to work with a primary care provider who can help with the symptoms, if you would wish to work with a therapist to help alleviate the panic and anxiety, or if some combination of both would be the best approach. I guess I would choose the last option,

  • Marjorie

    Marjorie

    June 20th, 2014 at 12:05 PM

    It could be very easy to get caught up in this cycle of worrying right after one attack that another one will be just around the corner.

    You can see how this could immediately start the symptoms and feelings of anxiety all over again and you could then just be moving from one episode right to the next.

  • Jaye B.

    Jaye B.

    October 19th, 2014 at 5:21 PM

    When I use to get panic attacks that is exactly what happened to me. I would have one then freak out so much for having it I would put myself rite into another one. I always ended up.in the hospital for just wanting to kill myself because they were so bad. I eventually got away from.the stressors in my life and on the rite medication and havent had an attack in the last 7 years. I don’t for one minute think they will never come back but I can go to sleep at night now with no medication

  • travis

    travis

    June 24th, 2014 at 4:24 AM

    No truth at all the those who say he was scared to death? Panicking won’t do this to you?

  • Sharon

    Sharon

    October 19th, 2014 at 4:18 PM

    I always think this is it , it’s going to kill me this time , I need to stop that but it’s a scary thing and hard to re focus :(

  • Shannon

    Shannon

    October 19th, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    does anyone experience 24-7 anxiety where it makes your heart go crazy?

  • tracy

    tracy

    October 19th, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    panic attacks rule my life im claustrophic agrophobic all because i got stuck on a train at the age of 10 could get off it to follow my mum roll forward 30 years my first 1 happened going to visit hubby in hospital after he had a tripal bypass n they think the stress started them off i been 2 mind i have had a psychotherapist and a psychologist cbt didnt work i now take 15 mg escitalopram a day they stop all little 1s but i now avoid any transport as it brings on a big 1 n they r scary u do think ur going to die at the time its happening n nothing can tell u otherwise whilst its happening without the escitalpram i cant function normally

  • Angie R.

    Angie R.

    October 19th, 2014 at 4:39 PM

    Iv been suffering from anxiety and having panic attacks for about ten years and i was on meds for two years…the meds worked well but i didnt want to be dependent on them..and i was ok for a few months…but im back to the symptoms and its real serious..im afraiD for my life..cuz im struggling with alot right now in my life..idk what to do…its hard with my situation to get counseling im a single mom i have to work dont have a vehicle and i could go on and on..with my issues..but i wont..im doing my best to stay positive n strong for my son..sometimes i think the worst but i love the lord too much n my children n self to do anything stupid..i just ten to feel defeated…with life…i need help

  • sarah

    sarah

    October 19th, 2014 at 5:20 PM

    This is absolutely spot on, I have suffered with anxiety attacks/panic attacks for over 20years now, my first panic attack happened on my way home from a friends house when I was 18, before I had my very first panic attack I was an outgoing kind of person, lots of friends loved socializing and lived life to the full, this was soon to change. I started having more and more panic attacks but noticed most of them was when I was alone whether outside or even inside, I eventually went and seen my doctor who told me I was suffering with anxiety attacks, I was basically told to go home and continue as normal as panic attacks wouldn’t harm me, I found not a lot of doctors actually had time for this condition as it was something the person themselves had to overcome, looking back on things now as I’ve suffered with this for many years, I feel let down with the response I got from people in professions that was meant to help me not make me feel embarrassed and ashamed of what was happening to me. I found it easier to not put myself in the position of when I knew i’d start to panic, i.e out alone, having someone with me as much as possible when at home, this was the worst thing I actually done because as time went by although the panic attacks had slowed down, my life became where I couldn’t be alone and would only go out of my home with family members close to me. Anxiety attacks/Panic attacks have taken away most of my life and it is one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced, i’m so glad that it is recognized more now as I was shocked to see exactly how many people suffer from it. I think if I could start all over again from the first time I actually experienced a panic attack i would of done things different, demanded more help from my doctor so i actually understood what was going on with me, rather then to try and not put myself in the position again where i would panic. facing up to a panic attack and getting help with anxiety is the only way forward, if not you’ll miss out on so much of your life.

  • Mandy

    Mandy

    October 19th, 2014 at 9:44 PM

    I feel for u as it has destroyed my life for many years. I now take Pregablin, Citalopram and occaisionally Diazepam if i feel particularly bad. I’ve also had some psychotherapy which helped a bit xx

  • Allison

    Allison

    October 19th, 2014 at 5:23 PM

    I have suffered from panic attacks since I was 14, I am now 35. I learned from many sources and therapy, how to just let it flow through me. I also have borderline personality disorder, which dosent help. I now look at panic attacks like “body trips” and I don’t feed it. It helps me. I’m lucky I guess

  • dave j.

    dave j.

    October 19th, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    I thought I was having a heartattack ended up In an ambulance after I collapsed at a bus stop. Paramedic thought I was taking the piss because my vitals were ok.. I couldnt even explain the pain In my chest. They took me to hospital where it happened again.

  • Ileana

    Ileana

    October 19th, 2014 at 5:57 PM

    Not all anxiety goes away with cognitive therapy. I have to take Prozac or the anxiety will control me and I become disabled.

  • kay

    kay

    October 19th, 2014 at 6:09 PM

    I have suffered panic attacks for 48 yrs, have been on medication for this all that time, firstly valium half one when felt one coming , I used to wake up at 3am with full blown p/a wich was terrifying, when moved from syd to sth coast many yrs ago the dr put me on Kalma instead was on that for sev yrs , had sev falls etc controlled p/a ok but family& friends said I wasnt me ,I have since been taken off all meds going through terrible withdrawls for 6 mths but getting there, no more bandaids for me, trying to control disorder with counselling & group therapy & great family support xxoo

  • Barbara

    Barbara

    October 19th, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    I’m glad you’re trying the natural approach and it’s so awesome that you have a great support system.

  • Carla

    Carla

    October 19th, 2014 at 8:31 PM

    Where does one turn when on Disability with not enough money to afford therapy, but ‘too much’ money to get free assistance ? When your lack of funds to care for your own & your pet’s health or to get your car fixed so you can at least get out a bit. When the MDs you encounter take you off half your meds & tell you just to breathe deeply, its all in your head so to speak. Where to turn if you’re not suicidal but can’t imagine going on this way ? What to do when you want to get better physically, financially, emotionally – when you want to work again but can’t go back to college because you can’t go without assistance & even if you get assistance, it would impact your Disability etc ? They get you one way or another. I don’t want to die from stress-induced stroke, heart attack or stomach/reflux/digestive issues etc. Nor do I want to die because I can’t afford to get other issues taken care of. Seriously, where does one turn ?

  • Susan

    Susan

    October 22nd, 2014 at 1:12 AM

    Everything is so right on the mark. I’m in the same situation even to the point I suffer from GERD for past 20 yrs. I’ve yet to find an answer and I was hoping I’d see one in this comment section. Someone must know how to survive this situation somehow. Please take the time to share if you have any ideas it would help so many of us. Thanx from our hearts💕

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    October 19th, 2014 at 8:38 PM

    I’ve been on Paxil since 1996. For a little over 10 years before that I had panic attacks pretty much every night. I believe it’s PTSD from being bullied mercilessly from Grade 3 to 8 – a “great” way to have your self esteem completely shot to Hell.
    So long as I take my meds every day my panic attacks stay under control, otherwise I’ll get a really bad panic attack if something causes a change in my daily schedule. My husband notices that every time we move into a new apartment I’ll have one sometime soon after.

  • Dani

    Dani

    October 19th, 2014 at 8:40 PM

    I have been on meds for almost 20 yrs and it has made me “normal”. If you need to get yourself balanced, don’t be ashamed to be dependent on medication. There is nothing wrong with helping yourself to lead a normal life. Living a life of panic is no way to truly live. Good luck everyone and be kind to yourself.

  • Heather

    Heather

    October 19th, 2014 at 9:07 PM

    I don’t agree 10 years ago. I thought I was waiting for a anxiety attack to pass. I then felt pain on sides of neck.i went to hospital. The doctor told me that my anxiety raised my blood pressure up so high I had a heart attack. Always be on the safe side. It’s better to go in and be sent home than to die.ladys are heart attacks are different from men.we tend to not want to go in by then it can be to late.

  • Hasan

    Hasan

    October 19th, 2014 at 9:38 PM

    Horrible panic attacks. Seems like I am gonna die with heart attacks, nervous breakdown or so. Face color faints.. jst nothing under control.
    Escitalopram is my choice for the last two months and it is working. Now a bit calm but even then for few times in a day I feel I am being trapped.

  • Barbara

    Barbara

    October 19th, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    I have survived anxiety for the past 7 years. I want to live life. Anxiety/Panic is so debilitating. My mom and sisters all suffer from it to but not at the level that I do. I don’t use medication for it anymore because it causes memory loss. I will continue to move forward and learn to manage it better without the fear, then I will be free. God help us all. He is our peace.

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    October 19th, 2014 at 10:36 PM

    I started having panic attacks but didn’t realize. I was in and out of urgent cares. Took a leave off work. Finally discovered I have PTSD and an anxiety disorder. Since than has been a downward spiral of events. Bad trials of meds. Lost my job. Lost my apt. Now, I try to put myself out there. I tell myself my anxiety makes me feel ALIVE. I let it flow. I smile. I breathe. And I also read a lot of helpful quotes. Music is a BIG help. Also yoga. ESCAPING does NOT help (Running away). The only way to overcome anxiety is to do what your most afraid of. Just do it. And after, I promise, you’ll feel on top of the world I wrote a “fears” list and I am still completing them everyday. Stay positive.

  • Catherine

    Catherine

    October 19th, 2014 at 11:33 PM

    Iv suffered from anxiety and panic attacks and depression for years yet nothing else that is done help in any way when i have a really bad attacks go to hospital get treated like a piece of crap it an illness i don’t want to suffer from them i fill like ending it most times

  • GoodTherapy Admin

    GoodTherapy Admin

    October 20th, 2014 at 8:31 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Catherine. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Kimberly

    Kimberly

    October 20th, 2014 at 2:04 AM

    It just comes out of no where…a rising flush and a flutter in the heartbeat…then racing thoughts. ..then breathing becomes difficult. …it’s not just in our minds, it’s a physical ailment as well…of course if it’s clearly a severe threat then medication is suggested.

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    October 20th, 2014 at 2:16 AM

    I’ve been dealing with panic & anxiety for years. I found a great article about how to control panic attacks. If you feel one coming on, don’t fight it. It escalates if you try to repress it. As for anxiety I’m still learning. A therapist I follow on YouTube said anxiety + action =relief. When I feel that ansy feeling coming on, I clean to distract myself. About 2 years ago I realized I had a problem when I caught myself on my hands & knees @ 4am scrubbing my floor with a toothbrush. In addition, I have a back injury & the pain also helped because it distracted me from my worries. My most recent cause of anxiety is because I am a heart patient with an implanted defibrilator. I’ve can’t help but worry about the what ifs. I’ve stopped driving, have someone

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    October 20th, 2014 at 2:27 AM

    Sorry, got cut off. As I was saying, since having my defibrulator implanted my anxiety has peaked. I’ve stopped driving , I’m afraid to be completely alone, & won’t go for a quiet swim by myself. This has been difficult for me because I’m used to being independent & doing things on my own, which has caused my depression to worsen. I’m working on getting disability but it’s been a long difficult road. Thank you for listening <3

  • Tina Marie

    Tina Marie

    October 20th, 2014 at 6:34 AM

    I was diagnosed at 19 when panic disorder and depression I’m almost 35 everyday is a struggle and fight. I would wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air, I would wake up dizzy and scared in a panic wanting to run away cause of fear. I had been suffering all my life when I was 8 years old I would get a gagging feeling and scared feeling or feel like nothing is real around me. As I got older the symptoms got worst for the past two years I feel like I’m on an elevator or boat like I’m off balance and I told my Doctor I think I have a brain tumor. These symptoms scare me to believe I was sick with a disease. When I was young I was physically and verbally abused by my Dad for most my life til I was 30 years old. My parents both had depression and anxiety its hereditary. My Dad passed away from Cancer 3 years ago and I got out of a relationship a year ago that has taken a toll on me. The person I was with just left me so fast, lied and cheated and I haven’t seen this person since and they were my first true love. I get headaches, muscle twitching, muscle aches, nausea, stomach pain, I threw up out of the blue driving thinking of my ex, I worry all the time, I’m scared all the time. When I get stressed my anxiety is really bad. I don’t sleep well at night. I have changed my eating habits and I workout and I always remain positive. The key is have a good support team, good therapist and a plan. I also read books on anxiety and depression. Vinny from Jersey Shore has a great book I recommend that book is me when I read it. Getting through anxiety and depression takes time but it Starts with change of thinking and attitude. Day by day take steps!

  • joy

    joy

    October 27th, 2014 at 1:17 PM

    I have been suffering from panic attack and depression for years. My husband is very ill, so I cant work. Lately my heart rate had been high and my fact is going numb with prickly feelings. I also suffer from tension headaches because of all the stress I’m going through. Any thoughts? Thank you.

  • Tami

    Tami

    May 4th, 2016 at 10:44 PM

    I have been struggling with panic disorder with agoraphobia,generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and major depressive disorder for over 20 years now. I have developed some increasingly worse social anxiety symptoms as well. I literally JUST got off of benzos (drugs like Xanax and Klonopin; these drugs are usually used to treat anxiety disorders, but sadly they become habit-forming/addictive) while in a first-time inpatient treatment substance abuse/chemical dependency rehab program. I was in this drug rehab program for 30 days straight; I also had to go through detox for benzos (this is addressed right away for acute benzo withdrawal due to it being a potential life-threatening state, such as fatal seizures). Alcohol and Benzo withdrawals are the only two substances which can actually kill you. I also needed to go to treatment for opiate addiction, but I’m just focusing on the benzos for now. I have felt increasingly worse for over a week now. It feels as if I’m having a constant panic attack…it is this horrible state of distress 24/7! I’m twitchy, “internally dizzy” (the room/my surroundings aren’t moving, but I am), sweaty at times, increased heart rate (I’ve had persistent/consistent tachycardia and hypertension since I’ve gotten off all the drugs), increased blood pressure, and the worst – depersonalization/detachment from my body and my surroundings. I feel “pins and needles” in my limbs…it feels like I’m moving in slo-mo, dreamlike/surreal…very scary and unpleasant. I’ve been trying to focus on my thoughts and trying to control my reactions to these thoughts, which = changed behaviors. Changing behaviors can do wonders, but one cannot change unless they first accept these feelings and “catch” them (the 3-C’s concept of CBT Therapy). I’m starting to fear that I’ll never feel “normal” again! It’s very terrifying! I’m so twitchy and agitated that I’m very fearful of driving in my car now! The only other way I can kinda describe how I’m feeling is this: you know when you go to the dentist and he/she gives you Novacaine to numb up your mouth? And you know that feeling you get as the Novacaine begins to wear off? Yep. That’s exactly how my body and even my mind have been feeling for over a week now! It’s extremely weird, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and scary! I’ve been trying to ignore this overall detached, surreal feeling as I try to continue living a life of recovery from addictive drugs, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to ignore this nagging, icky, even scary feeling! What can I do? Am I going to feel this way for the remainder of my life? Scary! I can’t stand it much more! I just want it to go away and I wanna feel “normal” again! It’s literally constant “pins and needles” too…very out-of-it kind of feeling…I keep telling myself that it’s just a very unpleasant feeling, that my body, after depending on drugs for such a long time, is still trying to adjust to being drug-free…my body and my mind are trying to “reset” and this reset is going to take some time, right? It’s expected that my blood pressure will be elevated as I continue to live life drug-free. My primary physician also stated that any instability in life will greatly impact my symptoms in general with anything…still, I’m becoming disheartened and very afraid at this “weird feeling” that I have been feeling for over a week now. My sleep is disturbed; I flail about in my bed all night. I’m beyond exhausted. My doctor prescribed an old antidepressant, Amitryptiline, to help with the twitching and to help me sleep, but alas, no luck, it didn’t work at all. Now what? I really want to get relief without drugs if possible…I doubt I’d even get prescribed benzos ever again, but I’m getting scared/desperate! Help, please! Thanks.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 5th, 2016 at 9:11 AM

    Dear Tami,

    The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we do encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional who is qualified. Feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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