What the Yuck: Am I having a panic attack?
May 6th, 2011
05:41 PM ET

What the Yuck: Am I having a panic attack?

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Q: My heart sometimes feels like it's racing in my chest - am I having a panic attack?

Anxiety can definitely cause palpitations (feeling like your heart is pounding or jumping in your chest). If you are about to do something nerve-wracking like give a speech, you may feel your heart beating a little faster, which is a normal response to stress hormones.

True panic disorder (aka panic attacks) is a form of anxiety disorder that occurs for no discernible reason. So if you get these symptoms only when you have something stressful going on (a blind date, a public speaking engagement), it's not a panic attack but a case of nerves.

However, if the chest symptoms come out of nowhere and you also feel intense fear or dread, feel faint, and are short of breath, trembling, or sweating, you could have panic disorder.

If you haven't been diagnosed with the disorder, get your symptoms checked out by a doctor. A racing in your chest could also mean there is something wrong with your heart - an abnormal rhythm, a heart valve problem, a heart muscle problem - all of which can be very dangerous if not diagnosed and treated. Your doctor will probably give you a test called a Holter monitor where you wear a machine for 24 hours that continually records your heart rhythm and rate; it's a continuous EKG.

Assuming your ticker is fine, ask for a referral to a therapist because panic disorder is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders. Options include talk therapy, prescription medication, including antidepressants or sedatives, or a combination of meds and psychotherapy.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

soundoff (103 Responses)
  1. lynna

    Bayousara, I couldn't identify with any message more than yours; when my first full-blown panic attack came, I was in the basement of my grandmother's church having a Mother's Day dinner with my mother, grandmother, and daughter. While I had had a few attacks prior to this, I had written them off as a pregnancy/hormone-related issue, and this was the pivotal evening, the moment that I first realized that something was very, very wrong.
    I can fully understand why those of us with Panic Disorder would consider suicide a viable alternative, and it never ceases to upset me when people use the phrase "panic attack" lightly.

    May 9, 2011 at 03:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. angela

    Unreal. Why do you people keep taking anti depressants for anxiety which takes forever to work if it even does so???
    I have been on Ativan 3 mg a day since 88 when my mother decided to kill herself.
    At the time I did not know what was wrong thought I was dying like everyone else here.
    Had a magnitude of tests done and not physical. It was all mental from what my mother did to me.
    You can take all the anti depressants in the world and it does nothing. You need anti anxiety pills such as klonopin, ativan, xanax etc. Ativan saved my life.
    In my case my sugar was excellent. Was 89 then and 89 now. My husband is a diabetic and never suffered a panic attack in his life. Why? Because his sugar has always been controlled and he did not have anxiety issues. Now if he does once in a blue moon I give him half my ativan.
    I'm glad psycho doctors and feedback worked for you but it did nothing for me. I went on the fast track with ativan because without it I would have lost my job.
    I don't take anti depressants because they make me suicidal.
    I have not one attack in 23 years. Also vicodin rocks for pain and depression. Did you know that??
    Good luck to you all as I know how you feel and am so happy that is all behind me now.

    May 9, 2011 at 04:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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    May 9, 2011 at 12:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. iamthefredman

    I'll never forget my first panic attack. I had vivid dream that I was at my deceased grandma's house with my deceased mom and with all my relatives who used to gather there when I was kid. My mom and grandma said that "You have a bad heart. You need to get a new heart." With that I was jolted awake and started the speeding up of my heart rate/pulse and spinning mind. I felt like I was running a race but I was laying in bed. It felt like my heart was accelerating and was going to go so fast it would explode. ("Speeding up" is my term for it). After years of attacks only when I wa sleeping, my cardiologist said I have 'subconcious anxiety' and I have nothing wrong with my heart. No medicine, no treatment, no diet change. I have not had one ever since the doctor told me this.

    May 9, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    Every time peaple deliberately and maliciously make me feel anxious,i get this overwhelming urge to kill, kill and kill again.However,instead, i say Father, if is in your will to destroy them ,then you kill them for me. Then i give thanks and praise.

    May 30, 2011 at 01:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.