Anxiety Attack or Heart Attack?
During the fall of my senior year of high school, I began to have chest pain and trouble breathing. A lot of pain. A lot of trouble breathing. It was constant, I could hardly play my clarinet and sat out one of the last marching shows of the season because I was in so much pain.
So. Much. Pain. Most of the time, it was a dull ache and the general feeling of not being able to get enough air. However, at seemingly random times, the pain would spike. It made me want to scream. But I couldn’t, because screaming takes air and it hurt to breathe. I can remember sitting in a friend’s basement gasping for breath, holding my chest, and sobbing. Full on sobbing.
I was sure something was seriously wrong, which made me worry, which made it worse.
This went on for months. I was in the ER twice. I had chest x-rays, EKGs, blood work, an echocardiogram, and a 24-hour heart monitor. Everything came back normal.
So why did it feel like I was dying? Why was I in more pain than I can describe? Why did I constantly feel short of breath? Why did my heart feel sore all the time?
I didn’t believe that at first. I’d had anxiety attacks before, and they were nothing like this. During those I couldn’t talk, I’d lose track of time, disassociate. Sure, I couldn’t breathe, but that was hyperventilating, like I couldn’t get air fast enough. And sure, there was pain, but it was my heart racing.
These didn’t feel like anxiety attacks. These gave me stabbing pain, it felt like my lungs were too small. I knew exactly where I was and who I was with. The biggest issue? I can usually feel anxiety attacks coming or have a good idea of what kinds of situations will cause them. I never saw these coming, and I usually didn’t feel anxious before or during them.
And yet, that’s what they were.
Sometime in the spring, when most of the stress of senior year was over, the attacks went away. Not entirely, but the constant underlying feeling of them was gone.
Since then I’ve learned this kind of attack tends to happen when I have a lot of overarching stress (like high school), a lack of sleep, or an inconsistent eating schedule. They still happen, but even in the moment, they’re not as bad because I can remind myself that I'm not dying, nothing is physically wrong, and I will be okay.
However, anxiety attacks don’t always feel like heart attacks, and they look a little different for everyone. Some people hyperventilate, others hold their breath. Some rock back and forth, some pace, some are entirely frozen. Some cry, some stare blankly. Some can't stop talking, some try but only end up with stammers and stutters, others (like me) lose the ability to speak entirely. They might lose track of time (for me, anxiety attacks always feel like they’re ten minutes long), they might disassociate, they might not. Some people experience the same symptoms and some (again, like me) experience different types of anxiety attacks depending on the situation.
No matter what they look like, anxiety attacks are serious. It’s not like being nervous before a test or butterflies in your stomach on your first day at a new job. They’re terrifying and make you feel like something awful is going to happen, even if you’re not sure what.
Anyone seen Iron Man 3? Remember when Tony Stark has an anxiety attack at the beginning of the movie and thinks something’s wrong with his heart, and/or he was poisoned? Yeah, that’s not an overreaction. They really can feel like that. For me, they did. Sometimes they still do.