Updated: Mar 9
You're experiencing tightness in the chest, your forehead is covered in a light sheen of sweat, you have a shortness of breath... it sounds like a heart attack, by all means get to the emergency room. But what if the emergency room finds that it was simply an anxiety attack? There's a good chance they did a bunch of tests first, but the crux of the matter relates to your stress levels and an inability to slow down and relax.
It's scary to find yourself in this type of position, yet it happens to so many anxiety sufferers every day. They go to the trouble of getting heart tests and sigh in relief when their doctor says there is no evidence of heart disease. There's just one small problem with that... research is finding that there is a link between anxiety and heart problems such as strokes and heart attacks.
The study, from Tillberg University in the Netherlands, reviewed patients with stable coronary heart disease. This is something that produces chest pain and a variety of other symptoms when patients exert themselves or engage in particular activities (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20603456). Patients with stable coronary heart disease, as well as generalized anxiety disorder, were more likely to experience heart events than those patients who didn't also suffer from anxiety. This study also found that the typical heart disease risk factors (like skipping medication, smoking, and failing to exercise) didn't factor into the number of heart events that these patients experienced.
There has long been a thought that heart disease and anxiety are linked, but this study finds that when anxiety and a heart disease are present the patients are at increased risk of a serious heart problem. That's where this study is unique, though, the fact that it specifically looked at GAD's effect in heart disease.
Many patients are given a diagnosis of depression, despite the fact that they suffer from both anxiety and depression. In many of these cases anxiety is the prominent issue, but for some reason, it's underdiagnosed or overlooked because it isn't seen as a major problem. We downplay the effect that anxiety can play in our lives, but it can be just as crippling as depression.
What About Chronic Stress?
A lot of the issues surrounding anxiety could be due to chronic stress. Something has to trigger those anxiety attacks that parade with the same symptoms of heart problems. We know that chronic stress increases the risk of heart disease, too, as the body can't function with extreme levels of cortisol for an extended period of time.
The key to managing anxiety often lies in alleviating stress, which can be a difficult task when our plates are so full. Even going to the doctor is seen to be too much, we don't want to pry ourselves away from our latest project or task because we don't want to draw attention to ourselves. One of the biggest problems that anxiety sufferers deal with is assuming that what is triggering their problem will be seen as nothing to others. There's also this belief that their anxiety is what fuels them to succeed.
Heart Problems Create More Anxiety
Anxiety and fear go hand in hand, and sadly, part of that is experiencing cardiac symptoms. It's difficult to know whether it's a genuine heart event or your anxiety speaking. This is just another complication for anxiety sufferers, the belief that you have a problem with your heart adds to the stress. This just means you're more likely to suffer from heart disease. If you suffer from anxiety, work with your doctor on strategies to reduce the anxiety.