Anxiety and panic attacks can be incredibly intense and frightening experiences, often leaving people wondering about their severity: Can anxiety be fatal? This guide explains the physical and psychological impacts of anxiety and panic attacks. We’ll explore how these conditions affect the body and mind, what symptoms to watch out for, and when to seek medical help.  

Can you die from a panic attack?

Panic attacks are not fatal. During a panic attack, a person becomes overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety, which causes the body to react as if it is in danger. It goes into “fight or flight” mode, increasing a person’s heart and breathing rates. These temporary changes can feel uncomfortable and frightening, but they will not kill the individual.

There is some evidence suggesting that panic attacks might complicate existing heart conditions, such as coronary heart disease (CHD).

study involving individuals with CHD showed that those with panic disorder—a condition characterized by frequent panic attacks—were more likely to experience temporary reductions in heart muscle blood flow during a panic-induced situation. However, this does not suggest that panic attacks are directly fatal, but they can worsen underlying heart issues.

Physical symptoms of anxiety

While anxiety or panic disorder itself is not life-threatening, its physical manifestations can significantly impact your overall health and well-being. Physical symptoms include:

Heart palpitations and increased heart Rate

Anxiety can cause your heart to race or flutter. These sensations are typically harmless in a healthy heart but can be concerning and uncomfortable. For individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular or heart conditions, frequent or severe episodes can potentially worsen heart problems, though not directly cause death.

Shortness of breath and hyperventilation

Anxiety often leads to rapid breathing or a feeling of being unable to breathe deeply enough. This can result in hyperventilation, which decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood, causing lightheadedness, dizziness, and, in extreme cases, fainting.

Chest pain

During periods of intense anxiety, some individuals may experience chest pain or discomfort, which can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. This can be particularly alarming and may prompt visits to emergency services, though the chest pain caused by anxiety is not typically a sign of a fatal event.

Muscle tension and chronic pain

Long-term anxiety can lead to persistent muscle tension, which can cause significant discomfort and contribute to chronic pain conditions. While not deadly, chronic pain can degrade the quality of life and contribute to further stress and anxiety.

Digestive issues

Anxiety can affect the gastrointestinal system, leading to symptoms like nausea, stomach aches, diarrhea, or constipation. While these symptoms are generally not fatal, they can lead to significant discomfort and health issues if not managed properly.

Fatigue and insomnia

The constant alertness and increased energy expenditure during anxious episodes often lead to fatigue. Moreover, anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia, which, over time, can weaken the immune system and contribute to a range of health issues.

What happens if anxiety is left untreated?

Leaving anxiety untreated can have a profound impact on both mental and physical health, leading to a range of complications over time. Here’s what can happen if anxiety is not addressed:

Worsening symptoms

Without treatment, the symptoms of anxiety can become more severe and frequent. This can lead to a heightened state of constant anxiety, known as generalized anxiety disorder, or more intense panic attacks that occur more often.

Impact on mental health

Chronic anxiety can lead to the development of other mental health disorders, including major depression and other anxiety disorders. The constant stress can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope, leading to further psychological issues.

Physical health decline

Anxiety can cause significant physical symptoms, as mentioned, and leaving it untreated can worsen these symptoms. Chronic anxiety increases the risk of developing cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, due to the constant stress on the body. It can also lead to gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or ulcers.

Impaired social and occupational functioning

Untreated anxiety can severely impact your ability to function in daily life, including at work and in social settings. It may lead to avoidance behaviors, where individuals avoid places or situations that trigger their anxiety. This can limit job opportunities, reduce productivity, and strain relationships with family and friends.

Substance abuse

Many people with untreated anxiety may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate and relieve their symptoms. This can lead to substance abuse and dependency, creating additional health problems and complicating the treatment of anxiety.

Sleep disorders

Anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep (insomnia). Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with a range of negative health outcomes, including weakened immune function, weight gain, and decreased cognitive performance.

Quality of life

Overall, untreated anxiety can significantly decrease quality of life. It can lead to helplessness, isolation, and hopelessness, affecting every aspect of life, from personal health to social interactions and professional achievements.

Increased risk of suicide

In severe cases, prolonged and untreated anxiety can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The overwhelming feeling of being unable to escape anxiety can lead some individuals to consider suicide as a way out.

What can you do during a panic attack to make it stop? 

You can use several strategies to help manage and potentially stop a panic attack when it starts. Some of them include:

Recognize and acknowledge

The first step is recognizing that you are having a panic attack, not a heart attack or other physical ailment. Reminding yourself that this is temporary and will pass can help reduce fear.

Try to accept that the panic attack is happening. Fighting the feelings can often intensify them. Acceptance can be a first step to recovery.

Use deep breathing techniques

Instead of taking quick, shallow breaths, which can increase anxiety, focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose, hold for a count of four, and then exhale slowly through your mouth.

Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Focus on making the hand on your abdomen rise and fall rather than the one on your chest.

Practice grounding techniques

Use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique by naming five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This can help distract your mind from the panic and bring you back to the present.

Another grounding technique is physical grounding. Touch various objects around you and describe their color, texture, and temperature to help distract your senses from the panic.

Focus on relaxation exercises

When tensed, exercises like progressive muscle relaxation can help you find relief. To do it, tense and then relax each muscle group, starting from your toes and working up to your head. This can reduce physical anxiety symptoms and promote calmness.

Another exercise is visualization. Imagine a peaceful place where you feel safe and calm. Focus on the details of this scene to divert your attention from the panic.

Use positive affirmations

Positive affirmations can influence your mindset during a panic attack. Consistently repeating calming phrases can build mental resilience, especially if practiced regularly outside of panic episodes. Personalize these affirmations to address your specific concerns.

For example, if losing control is a fear, tell yourself, “I have control over my breathing and my thoughts.” Sync these affirmations with your breathing exercises; speaking them slowly as you inhale and exhale can deepen their calming effect.

Move your body

Physical activity can be a valuable tool during a panic attack. Focus on the sensation of each movement to stay present and reduce anxiety.

Adding regular exercise to your daily routine can help reduce the number of panic attacks by lowering stress hormones and strengthening your body and mind. Specific exercises like neck rolls or shoulder shrugs can also be particularly helpful as they target areas where stress accumulates, releasing built-up tension.

Avoid stimulants

Consuming stimulants like caffeine and nicotine during a panic attack can worsen symptoms. If you’re prone to panic attacks, it’s wise to reduce these stimulants in your daily life.

Try replacing caffeinated drinks with herbal teas like chamomile or peppermint, which have natural soothing properties. Being aware of how different substances affect your anxiety levels can also help you make informed decisions about what to consume during times of stress or when you feel a panic attack may be starting.

Anxiety disorder treatment

Treating anxiety disorders requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the psychological and physiological aspects of the condition. Here’s an overview of the key components involved in anxiety disorder treatment:

Psychological Therapy

Psychotherapy is often the cornerstone of anxiety treatment, with several types proving effective:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This is the most widely used therapy for anxiety disorders. CBT focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing thinking and behavior patterns. Patients learn specific skills that can be used to reduce anxiety when they experience symptoms, helping them manage fear and anxiety in the long term.
  • Exposure Therapy: Particularly useful for phobias and panic disorder, this therapy involves gradual exposure to the anxiety source without any actual danger. It helps patients gradually build up their tolerance and control over their fears.

Medication

Medication may be combined with therapy for better treatment outcomes and is useful in severe cases:

  • Antidepressants: SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and SNRIs (Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors) are commonly prescribed for anxiety because they can be safe for long-term use.
  • Benzodiazepines: These are anti-anxiety medications that act very quickly (typically within 30 minutes to an hour). Because they can be habit-forming, they are generally prescribed for short-term relief of anxiety symptoms.

Lifestyle adjustments

Modifying lifestyle can significantly impact the management of anxiety. Key changes include:

  • Regular physical activity: Exercise can help manage many symptoms of anxiety. It increases the production of endorphins, improves sleep, and reduces stress.
  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Practices such as yoga, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises can reduce anxiety and enhance the body’s ability to relax.
  • Balanced diet: Eating a healthy diet can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. Certain foods like omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, and green tea can lower stress levels.

Regular Monitoring

An ongoing relationship with a healthcare provider is crucial to adjust treatment plans as needed, ensuring the best outcomes for the patient. Regular check-ins help monitor progress and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

Final thoughts

Anxiety and panic attacks can be overwhelming, but they are not fatal. Understanding the symptoms and seeking appropriate treatment can improve your quality of life. Don’t let anxiety go untreated—early intervention can prevent complications and help you regain control.

Our anxiety treatment program in Arizona offers compassionate, personalized care to support you on your journey to recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling, contact us today for help and support.

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