Can Panic Attacks Be Life-Threatening?

Panic is a sense of overwhelming fear, triggering physical and mental reactions so severe that a person might believe he is dying. Symptoms include palpitations, pounding fast heart beat, shaking, sweating, choking, dizziness, rapid breathing, and tight chest.

The cause of the panic can be real, or imaginary.

We all have felt panic before – before a speech or performance, when pulled over by police, stuck on an elevator, or forgetting your anniversary.

In those circumstances, your panic is normal, it is not pathological and you will quickly return to a non panic state once the stressor passes or the situation is dealt with. On the other hand, if you experience recurrent episodes of panic, often for no apparent reason, you may have a panic disorder.  Some common symptoms are

shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, blurred vision, tunnel vision, out of body feeling, pounding heart, trembling legs, spinning sensation, dry mouth, suffocating or smothering sensation, and a feeling that death is imminent

In his book, The Loss of SadnessDr Kenneth Kendler writes:

If an individual experiences a full-blown panic attack when he looses his grip and falls 40 feet before his rope catches him, no psychiatrist I know would consider this to be a psychopathological phenomenon. A panic attack is not—in and of itself—psychopathological. It only becomes pathology when it occurs in certain contexts—at times and in places when it should not.

One panic attack, not a problem. A couple more here and there, still can be dealt with.  If your panic is often, or is starting to interfere with your lifestyle or work, you need to see a clinician.  There are medical conditions that can mimic a panic disorder, and you should have those ruled out.  Also, it is safer to err on the side of caution.  If you feel you are having a heart attack, call 911. Chest pain or tightness should always be taken seriously!

The good news: you don’t have to be a victim of panic.

Don’t be ashamed or afraid to seek help, panic disorder is way more common than you think, and is very treatable.

Published by

Kathy

I've been a Family Nurse Practitioner since 1991. My most memorable patient was Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin Coroner from the Wizard of Oz. I now practice in Addiction Medicine and recently published Hepatitis C Quick Start: A guide for the clinician.

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