cardio = panic attack
June 24, 2016 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Raising my heart rate to cardio-levels has a really high chance of making my body think it is having a panic attack and I want it to stop doing that.

I have Anxiety and part of that was that I used to get constant panic attacks. They're very infrequent now (to the extent that I can honestly say my anxiety is managed) but whenever my heart rate/adrenaline goes up because of exercise (elliptical, running, aerobics) my body often starts having other panic attack symptoms. I'll start getting cold sweats, tunnel vision, shaking etc. It'll just be all the physical manifestations of anxiety without the psychological (unless it lasts too long in which case I start getting anxious about feeling awful.) I used to play sports as a kid and this would happen whenever my adrenaline went up, which was one of the major things that discouraged me away from physical activity and I'm only now just rediscovering it.

I'd like to start doing cardio more -- I lift weights now, which is good because my heart rate generally stays pretty low -- but I am pretty scared of this happening just because the feeling is extremely unpleasant and there's no way to make it go away quickly.

(Also please don't suggest having my medication adjusted. I walk about 5 miles a day and I would honestly rather just abstain from additional/strenuous cardio exercise than fuck with my medication in any way.)
posted by griphus to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
These are classic symptoms of overexertion. You are pushing yourself too hard at this point (or too long) if you are getting tunnel vision.

Cardio zones are general guides based on age, fitness, resting heart rate, and a number of other factors. They're not exact - you may indeed be in a cardio zone at 10, even 20, bpm slower than the typical zones you see on a machine particularly if you are rediscovering activities that cause this.

Get an independent heart meter and start 20 bpm below the typical zone for your age. Complete your workout and see if it still happens. If not - bump it by 2bpm. If it still happens, reduce the length. That will be your starting point. Work slowly on either length or exertion (but not both) and you will be able to get faster and/or go longer over time. Fitness is a long-game kind of thing.
posted by scrittore at 11:03 AM on June 24, 2016

Yeah, gym exercise machines aren't fully trustable - according to them 4 hours ago, I could easily get well above 190 without that hard of a workout. With an actual chest strap heart monitor (and currently a wrist based one), I've never gotten my HR above 184, and have to work pretty hard to get above 170.

With an actual chest strap HRM (cheap blutooth chest strap heart monitor will be about $40-80) you'll get valid numbers, and like scrittore mentions, start and stay low. Try 180-$yourAge-20 . So if you're 40, try to get no higher than 120 at first. Yes, that might mean that initially you're not doing much more than a fast walk, but your cardio can and will improve from there.

If you can comfortable exercise at this level, perhaps try 1-3 months before you slowly try walking your target HR up.
posted by nobeagle at 11:23 AM on June 24, 2016

I know you said you had this as a kid, but have you checked this out with your regular doctor recently? If not, you might want to do so.

Regardless, I only have experience countering panic triggers one way: inducing anxiety in increments up to the panic level, and getting used to the idea that I would be ok. Because panic is not dangerous. I did this with the guidance of a health professional. It helped.

So you might try what scrittore suggests, but with a therapist.
posted by zennie at 11:28 AM on June 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have anxiety and have had this happen. What works for me is low heart rate training, also known as the Maffetone method, where you keep your heart rate below the cardio threshold at all times, building an aerobic base. It's been really awesome to see my body adapt to being able to remain fairly calm under stress -- like yes, I'm running, I'm exerting myself, but not that much, I'm not about to die. I started using this method along with couch to 5k, and can now run around six miles at a time comfortably.

Part of Maffetone's formula is that it's really conservative, so not just 180 - your age, but 180 - your age - minus an additional 5 or 10 beats depending on whether you get sick often or are on medication. Basically, err on the side of too low a heart rate, even if it means you have to walk a lot. I'm 28, so for me it's 180 - 28 - 5 (allergies) = 147. I started out trying to stay between 135-145, and now I no longer panic, so I let my heart rate go up to around 152 at a comfortable pace.
posted by autolykos at 11:29 AM on June 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

I used to get this also. When I was in CBT bootcamp, my therapist and I discovered that my brain would go into that lizard DANGER DANGER PANIC when I ran and my heartrate increased to a certain level. And it sucked because I LOVE running (more accurately, I hate running but love being done with running and also being able to eat all the ice cream I want).

Anyway, I had to do exposures with an increased heartrate. Quick version although I'm sure you know what I mean: you force yourself into the uncomfortable situation and as the panic starts remind yourself it's only a feeling and continue to focus on your steps and your running. Keep grounded in the present moment. When you're done with your run, check in and note how you feel and especially, how you did so well plowing through that uncomfortable moment.

Over time, those feelings will dissipate. You can do it!
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:50 PM on June 24, 2016

It's worth noting that this might be physical. I have an acquaintance who is a professional triathlete, and began having extremely high heart rate late in long races. Palpitations, dizzziness, weakness.... It took a long time to get to the bottom of it, but they eventually figured out that one of the electrical nodes in her heart muscle was misfiring when she was pushing herself super-hard. A minimally-invasive surgical technique was used to cauterized that node, and her heart is back to normal function now.

This is not to say that you have the same thing - that would be quite a coincidence, and besides, IANAD! But the symptoms you describe - palpitations, shaking, tunnel vision, sweating - can be legit symptoms of heart trouble, or side effects to medication, or... lots of things. It makes sense to get that checked out.
posted by richyoung at 1:14 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes you need to see a doctor about this, ideally a specialist. Especially since its been happening since you were a kid. Have you had any testing at all? If your GP isn't helpful a sports medicine doctor is probably the place to start to get an evaluation and referral(s).
posted by fshgrl at 3:06 PM on June 24, 2016

I disagree with those who think this is physiological in nature. I've definitely experienced this during periods of heightened anxiety in my life.

I also don't think fixating on your exact heart rate is helpful. Have you tried lower intensity/duration cardio in a place where you feel safe? For me, I feel more comfortable doing this in my home than a gym, for example. The you could gradually increase the intensity and duration based on your perceived level of exertion. Start at cardio that you rate a 3 out of 10 and escalate to 7 or 8 gradually. It's okay if a 3 is only a few minutes one day and 15 minutes the next.

Also, try writing down some self-talk scripts that you can repeat to yourself if your anxiety boils up. "An elevated heart rate is a normal physical reaction to cardiovascular activity and I am not currently in any danger." Or whatever works for you.
posted by bkpiano at 7:35 PM on June 25, 2016

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