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. However, panic attacks cannot kill a person directly.
This article explores 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 speak with a doctor.
A panic attack may be frightening, but it is 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 rate and breathing rate.
These temporary changes can feel uncomfortable and frightening, but they will not kill the individual.
Some people may breathe rapidly, or hyperventilate, during a panic attack. Hyperventilation lowers carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which may make a person feel lightheaded. In rare instances, the individual may faint.
It is important to note that panic can actually mobilize resources and make people hyperalert. In a technique called exposure therapy, a therapist will recommend that a person keep going as usual, to help them learn that panic goes away on its own and bad things do not happen.
An older study from 2005 suggested 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), while 30 did not. PD is an anxiety disorder in which a person experiences regular panic attacks.
Researchers induced the physiological effects of a panic attack by asking participants to inhale a gas containing 35% carbon dioxide and 65% oxygen. Each participant then received a heart scan. Those 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, where certain areas of the heart receive reduced 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 negatively impact the heart.
A panic attack can overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms, making them feel as if 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 intensity 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
During a panic attack, a person can try the following:
- Ride out the attack: Rather than trying to escape the situation, continue what you are doing and do not look for distractions. Remain present in the moment until the feelings of panic subside.
- Try not to fight feelings of fear: Trying to avoid anxiety can create anxiety, which only tends to worsen a panic attack. Instead, people should aim to observe and accept their feelings of anxiety without judgment.
- Try to remain mindful of the present moment: Being mindful can offer a simple distraction from anxiety and panic. One approach 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.
- Breathe slowly and deeply: People sometimes hyperventilate during a panic attack, which 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.
PD is treatable — the right treatment may reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks and prevent future episodes.
Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy for PD can be highly effective. This treatment emphasizes “exposure therapy,” where healthcare professionals train people to reduce avoidance behaviors and confront them directly through exposure exercises.
- There was an increased incidence of heart attack among people below 50 years of age who 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 research 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 behaviors that negatively affect health to manage their anxiety, including:
PD is a treatable condition. People who experience panic attacks may believe that they simply need to “calm down,” but the very nature of panic attacks makes it difficult to do this.
Individuals 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 also phone 911 or seek emergency medical attention 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 different from previous panic attack dizziness
- chest pain that radiates to the jaw or shoulders
Panic attacks can feel so overwhelming that a person fears 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, if a person has an underlying medical condition, a doctor may recommend trying to find a safe place to stop and sit when they feel a panic attack coming.
Otherwise, cognitive behavioral therapists will recommend that they ride out the panic attack so that they can see that nothing dangerous happens. Over time, individuals may be able to learn that panic attacks are not dangerous.
The right combination of therapy and medication can help a person start living their life toward their goals and values and stop spending their time avoiding panic symptoms.
The goal of treatment is helping people live fuller lives rather than removing negative feelings and sensations.
Over time, individuals should be able to learn that panic attacks are not dangerous and that they can handle panic symptoms when they occur. In fact, the less people begin to fear panic attacks, the fewer attacks individuals are likely to encounter.