Can Anxiety Really Kill You?

Young woman using smart phone while sitting in bedroom

Maskot / Getty Images

While everyone experiences anxiety, if it gets to the point where you're crippled by its side effects, it may be time to get some help.

If you or someone you know is dealing with severe anxiety, it can feel like it's going to absolutely kill you. This is especially true for people who experience panic attacks.

That said, while anxiety itself will not kill you, it has been linked to heart disease, as well as a number of other symptoms that can pose serious threats to your health.

Below, we've outlined exactly what anxiety is, as well as its physical symptoms and long-term impacts. We also go over panic attacks and anxiety disorders so that you can better understand what causes them. Finally, we talk about how to support someone in your life who has severe anxiety, and how to get help if you're living with anxiety.

What Is Anxiety?

The American Psychiatric Association defines anxiety as "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure."

That said, anxiety can manifest itself differently for everyone, but it often feels like a constant, nagging worry that just won't go away.

While sometimes worrying can be warranted (in some cases it may be your brain's way of protecting you from real danger), anxiety leans more to unfounded worries that won't go away.

Things to pay attention to if you think you're experiencing an abnormal amount of anxiety are the length of time that your feelings persist, the intensity of the feelings of nerves, and the inability to focus on an exact cause.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety may be taking place in your mind, but the side effects can certainly manifest in a physical way. While there are lots of physical side effects that can pop up, these are the most common.

General anxiety may include one or more of these symptoms,however, panic attacks often include many of them at once:

  • Restlessness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath or the feeling of your throat closing in
  • Dry mouth
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Trembling or shakiness
  • Sudden sweating or chills

Long-Term Affects of Anxiety

Researchers at the Anxiety Disorders Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center believe that there are ties between long-term anxiety and the development of heart disease.

Perhaps what's most interesting about this research is that it determined that anxiety can not only lead to a higher risk of developing heart disease, but it can also act as an obstacle for those recovering from heart disease.

One of the reasons why this is thought to impact the heart is that it interferes with lots of things, like regular exercise and eating well, that can stave off the occurrence of heart disease.

In addition to making it hard to stick to schedules or do daily tasks, anxiety can lead to rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, and decreased heart rate variability—all of which put you at a higher risk for developing heart disease.

Research has also shown that anxiety can actually damage the brain and increase the risk of developing dementia later in life. It can also put people at a higher risk of developing depression. This is because it was found to lead to structural degeneration of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

What Is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks can definitely make people think that they're dying, and this is primarily because they share so many symptoms in common with heart attacks.

Panic attack and heart attack victims both typically experience sudden chest pains, heavy heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, and a number of other symptoms.

The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" defines panic attacks as "a sudden sense of fear and dread."

That said, in order to be classified as a panic attack, this sudden sense of fear and dread must be accompanied by at least four other mental, emotional, and physical symptoms. These symptoms can include any of the general symptoms of anxiety listed earlier if they occur in a sudden manner.

It's also important to note that there are two main types of panic attacks:

  1. Expected
  2. Unexpected

An example of an expected panic attack would be if a person with a known phobia (think small spaces or spiders) knows that they're going to be exposed to that fear. Unexpected panic attacks come out of nowhere and aren't a result of any mental or external triggers.

Anxiety Disorder Treatment

There are plenty of mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of anxiety disorders. If you're experiencing anxiety that just won't go away, you need to talk with your doctor or with a cognitive-behavioral therapist to determine if you have one of the following anxiety disorders:

After providing you with a diagnosis, your therapist will have an idea of how to treat your specific anxiety disorder.

Coping With an Anxiety Disorder

While considering therapy is a great option if you're not already going, here are some in-the-moment tips for managing your anxiety:

  • Clear your mind: Whether you like to meditate, practice yoga or simply take a walk, taking a moment to remove the focus from the subject that you're anxious about is beneficial.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: These substances can make you more anxious, especially when consumed in excess.
  • Exercise daily: You will feel much better once you get the endorphins pumping. This doesn't have to be extensive, but enough to get your heart rate up.
  • Get enough rest: When you're experiencing higher levels of stress, your body needs more rest. Listen to it.
  • Take deep breaths: This is especially relevant to the exact moments when you're experiencing a spike in your anxiety levels. Breathe, count to ten, or meditate.
  • Learn your triggers: Pay attention to the moments when your anxiety really kicks in and make note of what's happening leading up to those moments.

How to Help Someone With Anxiety

If you're watching a loved one struggle with severe anxiety, it can take a serious toll on your own mental health. That said, there are some things you can do to offer them effective support.

Here are some ways you can help someone who is experiencing anxiety:

  • Don't enable: If you're continually making concessions for someone because of their anxiety, it can have the adverse effect of helping them avoid things that they should learn to face head-on. This could end up leaving them more limited in the long run.
  • Don't force confrontation: Leave confrontation to the person's therapist. Trying to push someone when they aren't ready can lead to them resenting you.
  • Express validation: Don't minimize their fears or nerves in any way. Instead, let them know that you understand that different people are triggered by different things, largely as a result of their past experiences.
  • Express concern: If you notice that your loved one is avoiding things that they used to love or just generally withdrawing more and more from social situations, it's OK to point that out to them using specific examples.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing anxiety or know someone who is, it's can be understandably scary. Make sure that you seek help or encourage your loved one to seek help. Also, make sure you start to pay attention to any triggers that lead to more severe episodes, this way you can help your therapist reach a more conclusive diagnosis.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Anxiety. 2021.

  2. Terlizzi EP, Villarroel MA. Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder Among Adults: United States, 2019. 2020.

  3. Norton GR, Harrison B, Hauch J, Rhodes L. Characteristics of people with infrequent panic attacksJournal of Abnormal Psychology. 1985;94(2), 216–221.

  4. McCann UD. Anxiety and Heart Disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

  5. Mah L, Szabuniewicz C, Fiocco AJ. Can anxiety damage the brain?Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 2016; 29(1), 56–63.

  6. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th edition. 2013.

  7. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress.

  8. McGuire J. How to Help Someone with Anxiety. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.