Anxiety symptoms persist along with COVID-19 pandemic

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, acute anxiety, panic attack and similar topics were popular online searches spiked following a March 2020 presidential declaration of a national emergency.

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, acute anxiety, panic attacks and similar topic searches online spiked following a March 2020 presidential declaration of a national emergency.

Although researchers found anxiety-related searches soon returned to previous levels, emergency rooms and immediate care clinics have continued to see high levels of patients experiencing anxiety symptoms, well into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Am I having a panic attack?

Panic is a natural physical response to fear or threatening situations. Our prehistoric ancestors had to be on alert for predators or other dangers, and the response is still around in the modern human brain. A panic attack is an exaggerated reaction to a fear, either real or perceived. Symptoms of a panic attack or anxiety attack vary from person to person and can include:

  • Racing heart
  • Feelings of terror, losing control or that you are going to die
  • Dizziness, nausea or feeling faint
  • Pain in chest, stomach or abdomen
  • Shaking, sweating or trembling

Is it my heart?

No matter what your health status is, you should go to the emergency department immediately if you have sudden, severe chest pain. You can be tested for specific enzymes in your blood that would indicate you had or did not have a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain that radiates down the arms, into the neck or jaw, or into the back and shoulders
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath or pressure in the chest

It’s important to look at all the symptoms together, as well as your health history, to determine the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack.

COVID-19 and anxiety

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How does anxiety affect your heart?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that there is a connection between mental health and physical wellness. Anxiety can trigger increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, these effects can lead to calcium buildup in the arteries, cardiac events (such as heart attack) and metabolic disease. People with anxiety also may take up behaviors such as smoking, or they might decrease their activity levels. These behaviors can contribute to heart disease.

When in doubt …

If you regularly experience panic attacks and are at risk for heart disease, talk to your doctor about what symptoms should trigger an immediate trip to the emergency department.

If you’ve never had a panic attack and you’re not sure if that is what is happening, it’s better to be evaluated immediately — don’t explain away symptoms. Call 911 to be transported to the hospital via ambulance. That way, EMTs can monitor you and provide important information to your emergency doctors. Every minute matters with a heart attack — time saved is heart muscle saved.

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