Lorna Thorpe suffers from chronic panic and anxiety attacks. She writes in her journal, “It’s around midnight and I’m laying awake, finger on my pulse, afraid to go to sleep in case I never wake up. I’m not having palpitations, but I’m uncomfortably aware of my heartbeat and the physical presence of my heart in my chest.” She wonders if she should call a friend or go to the emergency room. She also wonders if she will burn to death in her sleep since there is a 1/10,000 risk that this could happen.
She couldn’t find recent statistics on how many people die from heart attacks in their sleep but she checks her heart rate and contemplates dying anyway. At age 50 Lorna did have a heart attack. Lucky to have survived, she’s now redirected her attention toward understanding panic anxiety and exploring the link between incessant worrying and heart failure.
The life of a person suffering from attacks of stress and anxiety is full of relentless suffering. The individual feels constantly pumped up with stress, lurching from one manic rollercoaster to the next. Sometimes a specific event will trigger the panic anxiety, such as a sudden change in work responsibilities, hearing of someone’s illness, watching a news story about an assault or burglary on the news or sitting in standstill rush hour traffic.
Following the event, the person may feel out of control for ten to thirty minutes, or it could spill over into the entire weekend, waxing and waning. Sometimes the panic attacks anxiety came out of nowhere and butterflies would appear in the stomach while putting on makeup, making a cup of tea or trying to fall asleep at night. Anxiety attack patients feel light-headed, confused, short of breath, sweaty and their limbs may go numb. They wonder if it will ever end or if they are crazy or if this stress can cause heart attacks?
A 1990 to 2002 British study of 57,615 patients diagnosed with panic and anxiety attacks disorder and 347,000 patients without symptoms of anxiety attacks found a few surprising links between heart attacks and panic attacks. Heart disease was more prevalent among everyone recently diagnosed with panic attack disorder. Heart disease for panic anxiety patients under 50 was especially high, as were female participants from 16 to 40 years of age.
For those over age 50 with panic disorder, there was no increased incidence of heart attack. Researchers concluded that psychological strain contributes to coronary artery disease. Abnormal heart rates can contribute to heart disease. Hyperventilating can trigger a coronary artery spasm, which often leads to a heart attack. Additionally, they concluded secretion of stress hormones can create a ventricular arrhythmia.
Panic and anxiety attacks seem to be linked to heart troubles, doctors are finding. Men suffer most anxiety attacks panic related to work stress, whereas women reported the most panic attack anxiety from their relationships. In the “Recurrent Coronary Prevention Project,” researchers found that the most depressed men and women were the most likely to die of second heart attacks and that the depression outweighed any changes to diet, exercise or cholesterol levels. “[It] may be a deep, abiding dissatisfaction with life, a harsh condemnation of the self,” concludes head researcher Dr. Thoresen. ”It is a feeling that you never do anything right fast enough, and well enough.”