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Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks and Anxiety

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Updated May 15, 2009

People with panic disorder (PD) usually experience physical symptoms associated with panic attacks and anxiety. Sometimes these physical symptoms send sufferers to emergency rooms and doctors offices in an attempt to uncover an underlying medical illness. Most often, PD sufferers are told that there is nothing physically wrong. The following is a brief overview of some of the common physical symptoms associated with panic attacks and anxiety.

Shortness of Breath

Many people with panic disorder experience shortness of breath or sensations that they are smothering. These symptoms are often described as feeling like not being able to get enough air into the lungs. Since we need to breathe to sustain life, these symptoms quickly bring about a sense of panic and fear. If you feel like you can’t catch your breath or are smothering, it may seem logical to conclude that you may faint, or even die, from lack of oxygen. But, in reality, these sensations are not life threatening or dangerous.

Muscle Tension

If you have panic disorder, agoraphobia or another type of anxiety disorder, you may experience frequent muscle tension. In fact, chronic muscle tension may be so automatic that it seems normal, and you may have forgotten what it feels like when your muscles are completely relaxed.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a stress and anxiety management technique developed by Chicago physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. Jacobson theorized that anxiety and stress lead to muscle tension, which, in turn, increases feelings of anxiety. When the body is in a relaxed state, however, there is little muscle tension, leading to decreased anxious feelings.

Frequent Headaches

About 50% to 66% of women and 35% to 40% of men who have a panic disorder suffer from frequent headaches. And, people with panic disorder are up to seven times more likely to suffer the most severe of all headaches -- migraine. One study showed that two out of three patients with panic disorder met the criteria for problem headaches, with migraine being the most prevalent form.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Symptoms

Gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances commonly include symptoms of stomach pain, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, nausea and vomiting. When no medical cause for GI disturbances is found, they are often termed “functional GI symptoms.” Many studies have shown a correlation between anxiety, depression and functional GI symptoms. Generally, study results have demonstrated that people who have at least one GI symptom are more likely to have an anxiety disorder or depression than those without any GI symptoms.

Chest Pain

About 40% of people with panic disorder experience pain in their chest. Chest pain or discomfort is listed in the DSM-IV-TR under the symptoms associated with a panic attack. Whether or not you have panic disorder, pain in the chest area sounds an alarm. The first thought, and rightfully so, is that you are experiencing a possible heart attack or other cardiac event. This possibility sends many people to the nearest emergency room for help. But, often chest pain associated with panic disorder is not related to the heart and is not, generally, considered serious.

Sources:

Carbonell, D. "Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick" 2004 Ulysses Press: Berkeley, CA.

Davis, M., Eshelman, E., and McKay, M. "The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th Addition" 2000 New Harbinger Publications, Inc.: Oakland, CA.

Haug, T.T., Mykletun, A. and Dahl A.A. "The Association Between Anxiety, Depression, and Somatic Symptoms in a Large Population: The HUNT-II Study. Psychosomatic Medicine" 2004 66:845-851.

Haug, T.T., Mykletun, A. and Dahl A.A. "Are anxiety and depression related to gastrointestinal symptoms in the general population?" Scand J Gastroenterol 2002 37(3):294-298.

Katerndahl MD MA, David. “Panic & Plaques: Panic disorder & coronary artery disease in patients with chest pain.” The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 2004 17:114-126.

Marazziti, D; Toni, C; Pedri, S; Bonuccelli U; Pavese, N; Lucetti, C; Nuti, A; Muratorio, A; and Cassano, GB. “Prevalence of Headache Syndromes in Panic Disorder.” Int Clin Psychopharmacol 14 July 1999 4:247-51.

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