During a panic attack, a person experiences overwhelming anxiety. They may feel their heart is racing, they cannot breathe, or they are going to die. While panic attacks cannot kill a person directly, their effects can put people in danger.
This article discusses the possibility of dying from a panic attack.
We also outline some potential health effects of repeated panic attacks, or panic disorder.
Lastly, we look at ways to reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks and when to see a doctor.
The only way that a panic attack could prove fatal is if it caused someone to have a fatal fall while fainting or led to them make dangerous choices.
An example of the above would be if someone crashed their car while panicking.
To reduce these risks, people should try to find a safe place to stop and sit when having a panic attack.
During a panic attack, a person is overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety. This causes the body to react as if it is in danger. The body goes into “fight or flight” mode, increasing a person’s heart rate and breathing rate.
These temporary changes can feel uncomfortable and frightening, but they will not kill the person.
In rare instances, the person may faint.
An older study from 2005 suggests that panic attacks may worsen heart problems in people with coronary heart disease (CHD). This disease has characteristic narrow or blocked arteries that supply the heart muscle.
The above study included 65 people with CHD. Of these, 35 had panic disorder (PD), and 30 did not. PD is an anxiety disorder in which a person has regular panic attacks.
Researchers induced the physiological effects of a panic attack by getting participants to inhale a gas containing 35% carbon dioxide and 65% oxygen. Each participant then received a heart scan.
Participants who had PD were more likely to experience a panic attack than those who did not.
Among all participants who experienced a panic attack, those with PD were more likely to develop a temporary myocardial perfusion defect (MPD). An MPD is where certain areas of the heart receive poor blood flow.
This does not mean that a panic attack is potentially fatal for a person with CHD. However, the study authors concluded that panic attacks in people with CHD are bad for the heart.
A panic attack can overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms, making them feel like they are in imminent danger.
Simply knowing that the symptoms are due to a panic attack and not something else can drain some of the power from the attack. Some potential symptoms to be aware of include:
- racing heart
- tightness in the chest
- rapid, shallow breathing
- feelings of terror
- fear of dying
- inability to think about anything else
To stop a panic attack, a person can try the following:
- Breathing slowly and deeply: People sometimes hyperventilate during a panic attack. This reaction decreases levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, so the heart then races faster. This sequence can result in dizziness or fainting. Breathing slowly and deeply can counteract these effects.
- Trying not to fight feelings of fear: Trying to avoid anxiety can create anxiety, so worsening a panic attack. Instead, people should aim to observe and accept their feelings of anxiety without judgment.
- Focusing on getting safe: A person who is out in public may need to move to a private location for safety reasons. Some people with PD develop a specific ritual for reestablishing a sense of safety.
- Trying to remain mindful of the present moment: Being mindful can offer a simple distraction from anxiety and panic. One way to be mindful is to try to notice five sights, four smells, or three sounds. Another way is for a person to count how many objects they see around them.
- Seeking support from a trusted person: If a friend or family member is nearby, talking to them or asking for gentle reassurance may help calm feelings of panic.
Panic disorder is treatable. The right treatment may reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks and may prevent future episodes. Some effective treatment options include:
- There was an increased incidence of heart attack among people below 50 years of age and had panic attacks or PD.
- There was an increased incidence of CHD among people of all ages who had panic attacks or PD.
- There was a decreased incidence of cardiovascular-related death among people of all ages who had panic attacks or PD.
The study did not find that panic attacks cause heart attacks and heart disease. It also did not prove that panic attacks protect a person from cardiovascular-related death. The study only established a correlation between these factors.
There are at least two reasons why anxiety may increase the risk of cardiac issues.
Chronic anxiety may trigger physiological changes in the body, which could lead to the following:
People may also adopt unhealthy behaviors to manage their anxiety. Examples include:
PD is a treatable condition. People who have panic attacks may believe that they simply need to “calm down,” but the very nature of panic attacks makes it difficult for someone to calm themselves down.
People should see a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- new or worsening panic attacks
- more frequent panic attacks
- panic attacks that do not get better after several weeks of treatment
- any side effects from medications for treating panic attacks
- any signs of heart health issues, such as:
- chest pain
- irregular heartbeat
- becoming winded when walking
People should phone 911 if they experience any of the following signs of a heart attack:
- intense chest pain or pressure, especially if it lasts more than a minute or two
- shortness of breath, even after several minutes of slow, deep breathing
- lightheadedness, especially if it is different from previous panic attack dizziness
- chest pain that radiates to the jaw or shoulders
Panic attacks can be so overwhelming that a person may fear they are going to die. This fear of dying may intensify the panic attack, leading to a vicious cycle of worsening panic.
A panic attack cannot directly kill a person. However, there is a possibility that someone could have a fatal accident as a result of a panic attack. For this reason, people should try to find a safe place to stop and sit when they feel a panic attack coming on.
The right combination of therapy and medication can help lessen the severity and frequency of panic attacks.
Treating panic attacks may also lower the risk of cardiovascular complications in people who have preexisting cardiovascular issues.