Medical conditions that mimic panic attacks

Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

Medical Reasons for panic and anxiety

When someone comes to see me with symptoms of anxiety or panic, the first thing I do is rule out medical causes first.  There are medical conditions that mimic the symptoms of anxiety.

This means that you may be having panic attacks, but the underlying cause may not be anxiety.  It is important, therefore, to know which medical conditions can give similar symptoms to anxiety.

You can read a complete list of anxiety symptoms here

If your symptoms are not of a medical nature, what you are experiencing then, is most likely the effects of your nervous system. 

Medical conditions with symptoms similar to anxiety and panic.

Heart Problems

Mitral valve prolapse is where the valve that helps blood flow to your heart does not close properly.  It should be noted straight away that this causes few problems for most people.

You can have this condition and not cause any harm at all.  For most people, treatment is not needed.  Indeed many people do not have symptoms at all.

Saying that (and again, I want to stress that this is harmless for most people), one of the mitral valve prolapse symptoms is that it can cause the person to have panic attacks.

Asthma

As an asthmatic myself, I know this one only too well!  Asthma is not just for kids; you could be like me and have adult-onset asthma.

I was diagnosed with asthma at the ripe old age of 38.  If you have panic attacks, you will fully understand that your breathing can be affected.

Asthma, as you probably know, affects breathing.  The airways in the lungs become inflamed, and it can feel like you breathe in and have your lungs puffed up like a penguin.

The symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and I get palpitations with chest pain and coughing. The difficulty breathing properly with asthma can lead to hyperventilation, which is responsible for many of the symptoms experienced during a panic attack.

If you are asthmatic and have panic attacks or anxiety, you might need to check that your inhalers are doing their job.

Please also see our guide to panic attacks

Thyroid Problems

Hyperthyroidism.  An overactive thyroid can cause symptoms that may be familiar to you if you have panic attacks.  These include sweating, feeling nervous, rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and palpitations.

These medical conditions can also affect your sleep; if you are certain that your symptoms are not a result of any underlying cause, you may be having nocturnal panic attacks, and you can read more about this here.

Most people have already been to see their doctor and have medical conditions ruled out.  If you have not, a quick check-up can rule out medical causes; as for some people, they may need a puffer for asthma or treatment for thyroid problems to make the symptoms go away!

If you have been given the all-clear by your doctor and have been told that your symptoms result from anxiety, that is still good news.  You are medically fine, and there are effective treatments available to stop your panic attacks.

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