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Hearts that go Thump…

Are you having a heart attack or is it something less sinister

By Janine Shamos

I can’t breathe! My hands are tingly and my vision is blurred… It’s a heart attack! I know it! I’m going to die!”

Todd* rushed off to the emergency room complaining of chest pain, shortness of breath, flushes or sweating, and rapid, irregular heartbeat. His father had suffered a heart attack and at 32, he knew he was next. “I was so cold… I was dizzy and shaky and felt like I was choking. My fingers and toes were numb. Weren’t these the symptoms every man is warned about? The symptoms of a heart attack?”

Todd was sent to a cardiologists for ECGs, stress tests and blood tests. It wasn’t a heart attack. Perhaps he had been working to hard and was just a bit stressed, he should get some sleep, play some golf…

But the heart thumping didn’t go away. Todd thought he knew what it was – food spice – so he stopped eating at restaurants for a while. “I would be sitting at dinner, and suddenly my heart would do the ‘thump’ and I’d feel all claustrophobic and it seemed like it happened when I ate out so I figured it must be the food”, say Todd.

Todd went back to his GP and his cardiologist – nothing. He started feeling like he was losing his mind. There was something wrong, he knew there was – but what was it and why could no one find it. “I felt like such a wus, so ‘girly’ but this was really starting to freak me out and affecting me at work and at home”. So Todd took the plunge, called the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 011 262 6396 and spoke to a counsellor about what he was feeling. “They understood me and what I was going through! It was amazing! I wasn’t imagining this! I was referred to a psychologist for Panic Disorder”. Finally Todd had a name for what was wrong with him and could get help.

According to Johannesburg-based psychologist and expert in Panic Disorder Colinda Linde, accurate and timely diagnosis of Panic and anxiety disorders is often elusive. “Many patients see 10 or more doctors before being accurately diagnosed, and people start to wonder whether they are somehow at fault. Was it something they were, or weren’t doing”.

In trying to come up with an answer people may misattribute the cause of the attacks to where they occurred. For example, if someone has an attack while driving a car, that person may begin to believe there is something about driving that causes the panic attack. And so the avoidance begins. “The person often begins to avoid places where they fear a panic attack may occur and may develop a fear of places associated with the attacks like highways, bridges or travel by public transportation”, says Dr Linde.

Panic Disorder affects both men and women, however, it is diagnosed about twice as often in women as in men. While the same symptoms in women may be attributed to psychological issues, in men they’re usually seen as physical and some physical cause is looked for. "Often before inquiring about a psychiatric disorder, the

examination of the male patient would most likely involve multiple medical tests”, says Dr Linde.

But let’s face it, men aren’t really that keen to seek help to deal with emotional stress and they will often try self-treatment instead. "At one point, I tried alcohol to make the thumping go away – in retrospect that was a really stupid thing to do and it just made me more jumpy.” Women are so much better at recognising when something isn’t right - and asking for help – but men have really always seen this as a weakness. Traditional male macho behaviour involves hiding or dealing with emotional problems alone – denial is strong and far more “manly”. Somehow even the heart attack scenario may be seen as more “manly” than admitting to a Panic Attack – something traditionally associated with women and nerves... “Men often resist admitting and accepting the fact that they are experiencing an anxiety disorder simply because they are conditioned to associate “emotional” illness with women”, says Dr Linde.

Panic Disorder is highly treatable, and learning about anxiety disorders and accepting that they can happen to anybody is a far better option to attempting to hide or to ignore the problem and allow it to jeopardise your career, marriage and relationships with children, parents and friends. Todd went for CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) which taught him how to recognise the symptoms of an attack and stop them before they escalated. “I got my power back – and my life back”.

So are men really suffering in silence, too embarrassed to come forward about disorders deemed to be "female"? It would appear so but with new techniques comes new insight and it’s high time men put down their “Machismo” and remembered that only real men seek help.

Specific Symptoms of Panic Disorder:

A person with panic disorder experiences recurrent unexpected Panic Attacks at least one of the attacks has been followed by 1 month (or more) of one or more of the following:

Common physical symptoms associated with anxiety disorders include:





People who experience panic attacks may also suffer from:

These physical symptoms are not usually dangerous, but they are real and treatable.



First Aid for Panic