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Never-ending worry is a reality for many of us in everyday life or tough times (*side-eye* COVID-19!). But can the heart-pounding, nervous restlessness of an anxiety disorder actually kill you?
Good news: Anxiety or a panic attack can’t kill you. But anxiety can affect your long-term health, so it helps to have personal coping tools and professional treatment.
Let’s dive in to why you’re not actually going to die from anxiety and some science-backed strategies to manage the mayhem.
Anxiety is a mental and physical reaction to fear, stress, or the unfamiliar (say, bears or public speaking). Some worrying is protective, because we need to respond when we’re in danger. But when anxiety goes into overdrive, it can affect your life and health.
Anxiety is super common. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 31 percent of adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder at some point in life.
While you can rest assured that it won’t immediately kill you, chronic anxiety can have negative effects on long-term health.
Anxiety may be bad for heart health
Research suggests anxiety disorders are common in people with heart disease. Some experts also believe anxiety may contribute to the development of heart disease. They speculate that chronic heart racing and increases in blood pressure over time might contribute to a higher risk for heart attack and potentially weaker heart muscle.
People with generalized anxiety may also have an increased risk of heart disease and suicide.
Other mental health conditions often accompany anxiety
Many people experience more than one mental health disorder at once, which can increase the risk of physical health problems.
Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, and a study published in 2017 suggested that doctors screen patients with emotionally triggered asthma for panic disorder.
Using drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with depression or anxiety may increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and liver problems — plus, it could make depression and anxiety symptoms worse.
Anxiety can kill your sleep
Some research has found that generalized anxiety disorder can negatively affect sleep quality, which can be bad news for long-term health. Sleep deprivation is linked to many health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
In a word, no. A panic or anxiety attack won’t kill you. But, like anxiety, frequent panic attacks can have some long-term health risks.
Researchers have studied whether having panic disorder could increase the risk of heart disease but haven’t linked the two definitively. However, repeated panic attacks can affect your sleep, putting you at risk of some of the long-term health effects associated with insomnia.
Panic attacks are intense experiences of fear and anxiety that happen out of the blue. If you experience panic attacks repeatedly, you might have panic disorder. Like anxiety, panic disorder is more common in women — in fact, women are twice as likely as men to experience it.
Anxiety attacks are also moments of high anxiety, but they’re triggered by situations that cause anxiety, and they aren’t as severe as panic attacks (think high anxiety but not a “heart attack” feeling).
|Symptoms||Anxiety attack||Panic attack|
|worry and distress||✓|
|sudden fear of death||✓|
|feeling of detachment from the world or yourself||✓|
|increased heart rate or racing heartbeat||✓||✓|
|shortness of breath||✓||✓|
|feeling of choking or throat tightening||✓||✓|
|sweating, hot flashes, or chills||✓||✓|
|trembling, numbness, or tingling||✓||✓|
|nausea or stomach pain||✓||✓|
|light-headedness or dizziness||✓||✓|
When a panic attack strikes, try these strategies to help you find a sense of calm:
- Label it. Announce to yourself something like “This is a panic attack. I can handle it, and it will be over soon.” You can also write down statements like “I have survived panic attacks before and know they won’t kill me” and carry them with you.
- Use belly breathing. Practice deep belly breathing or try box breathing: Inhale through your nose, filling your belly with air, as you count to four. Hold your breath while counting to four. Exhale through your mouth, also while counting to four. Repeat.
- Practice mindfulness. Try some relaxation techniques like repeating calming words or phrases. It may also help to imagine a scene that calms you or focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle in your body, starting with your head and working down to your toes.
- Focus on other things. If you can, focus your attention on something else, like brushing your teeth or petting your dog or cat.
- Play games for distraction. Download games or music on your phone that can help distract you. Research from 2017 suggests that playing a game could help someone calm down during panic attacks.
- Journal. Some therapists suggest keeping a journal of your panic attacks in which you note when they happened, how long they lasted, and how they made you feel. This can help you see any patterns or triggers and might help you feel more in control.
Even though an anxiety or panic disorder won’t likely kill you, it’s still a good idea to consult with your doctor about your long-term health.
Here are some signs it’s time to call the doc:
- Anxiety or panic attacks interfere with your family life, job, or relationships.
- Your physical health starts to take a hit.
- You have asthma and are prone to panic attacks.
- You’re taking a new medication and just started having increased anxiety or panic attacks.
- You feel depressed.
Your healthcare provider may recommend treatment options such as:
- Therapy. Your doctor may suggest psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
- Relaxation strategies. A therapist may outline strategies such as breathing techniques, journaling, yoga, and exercise.
- Medication. Your doctor may prescribe you medication such as buspirone (Busbar or Vanspar), SSRIs (Paxil or Zoloft), or benzodiazepines (Valium or Xanax).
If someone you love has anxiety, here’s how you can provide extra compassion or support:
- Don’t tell them to calm down because it’s “all in their head.” This can feel dismissive. Remember that their symptoms can be distressing and have very real effects on their life.
- Do ask how you can help. Be understanding if they can’t or won’t respond during an attack.
- Don’t get annoyed if they avoid situations that can trigger an anxiety or panic attack. You might want to gently point out that their anxiety seems to be affecting how they live and that you’re here to help.
- Do listen. If your loved one is talking about their anxiety, don’t assume they’re looking for advice. Ask if they just want someone to listen right now.
Anxiety and panic attacks won’t kill you, but they can affect your long-term physical and mental health. To cope with anxiety or panic attacks, you can try techniques like deep breathing, journaling, and distracting yourself.
If your symptoms start to interfere with your life and happiness, it’s best to talk to your doctor and possibly a therapist. Medical professionals can help you develop a treatment plan to minimize any long-term health effects. Make exploring self-care strategies a priority too.