Panic attack and heart rate






Panic and heart rate increases frequesntly occur together. Therefore, panic and heart attack symptoms are easily confused. In a well known HBO series, The Sopranos, the main character, Tony Soprano repeatedly confuses his panic with a heart attack. Luckily his psychiatrist Dr Melfi is able to point out to him that it is actually his anxiety causing these physical symptoms. 

Click here to see a clip about Tony’s panic attacks !

Many people who have symptoms of panic believe they are having a heart attack. Why would that be? Nowhere is the mind body connection more evident than in the strange phenomena of panic attacks.

What is the relationship between panic attack and heart rate and heart attack symptoms?

The American Heart Association describes heart attack warning signs as chest discomfort, pressure, or pain. Other signs are breaking out in a cold sweat , shortness of breath, or lightheadedness(Heart Attack, Stroke and Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs).

It's not hard to see how you could confuse panic and heart attack symptoms. Panic attack and heart rate increase at the same time. 

Although it is important to know and understand the warning signs of a heart attack, if you are cleared by a medical professional know that the feeling of doom and gloom you are experiencing , and the concern over your panic attack actually being a heart attack is not real. Challenging the false beliefs that are fueling a panic attack is on the key parts of treatment!

People who suffer from panic attacks make frequent trips to the doctor convinced that they are having heart attacks. Even after repeated reassurances these sufferers frequently continue to believe they are physically ill. For years, doctors didn’t even believe panic was a real condition but psychosomatic. What is it about this particular disorder that makes it so physically based? Why are the symptoms of panic attack heart rate and heart attack symptoms so similar?

We don't have all the answers to this question.

The current wisdom is that panic attacks are caused by perceiving stress and threat in our environment when it is actually not there.

The physiological response, increased heart rate,   is caused by our brain misreading a situation as an emergency when it is not. However it has the specific purpose of mobilize you if you were in danger to cope with and deal with that danger. 

Panci attack and heart rate: Flight or fight

I first became interested in this idea when I was working with youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system with a history of  trauma. Often the presenting symptoms with these kids were aggression. Society views these children as having behavioral problems and will lock them up in juvenile detention or punish them in some other way.

In working with these kids it became obvious to me that each time they became aggressive there was a specific trigger which they were  misinterpreting as dangerous. This harmless trigger threw them into” fight” mode.

As children their environment was so unsafe that they had to develop mechanisms of survival that prepared them constantly for danger. Their brain and body developed in response to this situation.

Children who have a flight response develop it in a similar way. For example, sexual abuse victims often will develop the response of fleeing either physically or in their mind ( freezing or dissociation)  in response to stress. We see this commonly in runaways.

Again this is a survival instinct gone awry because of an early history of abuse.

When they were younger it may be that the abuser was bigger and their best response was not to fight but to flee. Regardless of the mechanism at work here, there are direct physiological mechanisms that are driving and accompanying these trauma responses.

The problem is as they get older, the children grow in to adults who use these responses in the wrong situations.

Dr.Bruce Perry revolutionized the study of the impact of neglect and abuse on a child's biology and brain. If you are interested in more information about this topic click here to check it out.

How does this relate to panic attack and heart rate and heart attack symptoms? 

You know those stories of the women who lift cars to save their babies? That would be a situation where a panic response would come in handy. The adrenalin is meant to mobilize us to fight a life threatening situation, or in the event that the danger is to great, to flee! In the case of panic, our body gets confused by this response in a safe situation. 

Somehow people who are having a panic attack actually believe the  danger is imminent and their body reacts with a stress response as if it were so!  Something triggers a  panic attack and heart rate increases, sometimes causing us to fear that we are having a heart attack.  

All mental health conditions have multiple components and dimensions to them I think the physical components of panic attacks just highlight for us the important of being aware of how inseparable our minds and bodies are.

If you are experiencing panic attacks it would be wise to look at lifestyle and how that may be contributing to your illness. Panic attack and  heart rate increasing  or other heart attacks symptoms can both be an indication that you are not caring for your body and mind.

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.