From that dull pressure in our chests when we’re stressed to the sharp, heart attack sensations of a panic attack, it’s quite clear that the emotional condition we know as anxiety isn’t all in our heads. And when that pain and discomfort starts to build amid your panic, that’s when the biggest fear can hit: could I die from this? Can anxiety kill you?
If simply thinking about that question makes your pulse quicken, you may think you already have an answer — if it can quicken my heartbeat, it could certainly stop my heart, too.
Luckily (and comfortingly), human biology isn’t that simple, or that basic. There’s a complex relationship between your mind and body to be sure, but that doesn’t mean fear can stop your heart.
The bad news is that, as much as we’d like to tell you not to worry at all, anxiety can definitely have some pretty serious and negative effects on your health, and if you leave it unmanaged, those effects can be life-altering.
We’ll break down the worst and best case scenarios for your health and anxiety in a moment, but before we do that, let’s cover a few basics about how anxiety and panic affect your body.
Here’s the first thing that you need to know about anxiety: it is both a mental and physical response to something — specifically fear.Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder are conditions in which your mind generates fear about potential future dangers, and those fears affect your ability to function. For example, you might worry so much about embarrassing yourself at work that you never speak up or you might worry so much about the danger of going outside that you stop leaving your home.
But there’s a difference between anxiety and fear: one is present-focused while the other is concerned with the future. One is hypothetical while the other is more real. A good way to look at anxiety is to imagine finding a spider in your bed. It’s a fear response when you find a spider. It’s an anxious response when you spend the next several weeks wondering how many more are still in your bedroom.
Now, we all have anxieties from time to time, but anxiety disorders affect your wellbeing. To extend our metaphor, it’s evidence of a disorder when you’re so worried about spiders that you sleep on the couch for weeks (because honestly a couple of nights is realistic — spiders are terrifying).
Disordered anxiety will also cause symptoms like confusion, uneasiness, avoidance, insomnia and more. But there are acute physical symptoms too, which can include:
Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
Chest pressure or chest pain
People with panic disorders (essentially an extreme version of anxiety) can feel many of these same symptoms at more intense levels. And because of that, panic attacks are often misinterpreted as heart attacks by the very people having them.
The good news about panic attacks is that it’s very, very unlikely that you will die from one. While many people interpret the symptoms of a panic attack as symptoms of a heart attack, the truth is that it’s very unlikely that a panic attack will cause a heart attack — and they’re certainly not the same thing.
Most panic attacks are very intense but begin to wane within a few minutes. While the symptoms might feel like a struggle for life, it’s really your brain’s fight or flight instinct being set off incorrectly, like a car alarm going off because your neighbor sat down wrong and pushed a button on their keychain.
In short, a panic attack is very unlikely to kill you or cause a heart attack, and while it’s possible, it’s just not nearly as common as death due to medical complications of chronic anxiety.
So here’s the bad news: while a panic attack is very unlikely to kill you, a long-term pattern of chronic anxiety and panic attacks can certainly contribute to your risk of fatal problems.
Panic attacks may not screw with your heart rate, but over time they can increase your risk of actual cardiac events like heart attacks and other forms of heart disease. Not to mention, they can also increase your risk of suicidal thoughts, which can lead to suicidal ideation and, unfortunately, suicide.
So can anxiety kill you? Yes, by leading to other fatal outcomes over time.
Now, you may not feel suicidal. You may not have experienced a serious panic attack and you may sleep very well. But if your anxiety is bad enough that you’re doing some internet sleuthing to get answers about it, chances are that you could be taking your first steps on the path down that very dangerous road.
But luckily, you can proactively manage any anxiety-related increased risks of death with therapeutic intervention. That may mean medication, or it may mean therapy, or it may mean both. You might have to reduce chronic stress levels in your life or cut back on caffeine. There’s only one way you’re going to get answers for this level of anxiety: talk to mental health professionals.
Stress hormone levels cranked up to eleven? Severe anxiety affecting your daily life? We get it. Mental disorders like anxiety suck, and the symptoms of anxiety can, at their worst, make you feel like your heart is going to stop.
This is a good time for some deep breaths, because your heart won’t stop.
But even though there’s little chance of a single panic attack ending in your death, the reality is that untreated anxiety increases your risk of a lot of other conditions that can shorten your life.
Is it all preventable? Potentially. The only way to know is to talk to a healthcare professional.
Whether your anxiety is mild or extreme, new or lifelong, the sooner you address it, the sooner you’ll see your symptoms reduced. That means an increase in your quality of life now and, potentially, for many years to come.
Ready to have that conversation? Interested in getting the help you need now? Let us help — our online therapy platform is a great place to find the right therapy professional for your needs, and get the support (and medication, if need be) for your mental and medical conditions.
Even if you don’t require medication to treat your anxiety, our mental health resources are a great place to learn more about what treatment options for anxiety may be right for your individual circumstances.
Tailored support is just a few clicks away with us, but whether you get help here or elsewhere, start talking today. Just because you have the rest of your life doesn’t mean you should wait.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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