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Is it a Heart Attack or Anxiety?

"In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.”

Psalm 4:8

I was in the ambulance, lying on the stretcher. My chest felt heavy, weighted..... like someone was sitting on it. I couldn't breathe. The paramedics kept saying that my pulse was fine but my blood pressure was a bit elevated. I had pains in my chest that hurt so bad that I thought I was having a heart attack. How could this be? I was only in my late 30's. Heart disease runs in my family. My dad had a heart attack fourteen years ago. He now has a stent in his heart. My grandmother and aunt both died of heart attacks. What are my odds when it comes to heart disease and heart attacks? As I lay there listening to the siren and the cars on the highway, I kept thinking "is it my turn? Will I be next to have a heart attack?" The paramedic who was in the ambulance with me was very friendly. He kept reassuring me that I did not have all the symptoms of a heart attack and said "it's probably anxiety, but it's best to let the doctor see what's going on." He said with a smile.

We finally arrived at the hospital. It was the middle of winter, and the emergency room was packed. All the rooms were full, so they parked me in the hallway. Thank God my husband arrived a few minutes later (he followed the ambulance). It was close to 9pm when we arrived. An hour went by waiting in the hallway, then another hour went by. I was waiting so long, that I fell asleep. Then suddenly, my husband woke me up to tell me that we were next in line to see the doctor. They wheeled the strectcher into a room. It was now close to midnight. The doctor came in and checked out my heart, talked to me about my symptoms and had blood work done. By the time the blood work came back it was 1:00am. The doctor told me that I was fine and it wasn't my heart. He suggested I follow up with my primary care doctor. We left the emergency room close to 1:30am and I felt somewhat relieved, but a little dissapointed.

Anyone with severe anxiety knows how this scenario is common. This actually happened to me thirteen years ago. I was relieved that it wasn't my heart, but I was still concerned about my symptoms. Would they would come back? My primary care doctor referred me to a cardiologist to have tests done (just to be sure). When I saw the cardiologist, I had to wear a heart monitor for a few days. I did a stress test where I ran on the treadmill hooked up to a monitor and then had another test done (which I can't remember). All the tests came back negative. I was fine. So now what?

When I was in graduate school studying for my Masters in Therapy, one of my professors said "if you are going into the profession of helping people, you need to first help yourself." At that time, I didn't think I needed help nor did I think I needed a therapist. But after this hospital episode, I knew that I had to do something. So, I started researching therapists. The first one I met with didn't work out. I figured out that I needed a male therapist. I finally found one and he specialized in Christian therapy. It was a good fit. He helped me out a lot in the time that I saw him. However, during this time I also rediscovered my Catholic Faith and found healing in Jesus and the Sacraments.

We are made of a soul and a body. What affects our spirit and soul affects our bodies. It's the way God made us. When our souls are sick, then the body becomes sick as well. Our repressed emotions, baggage, and unforgivness causes many phsyicial symtoms, and anxiety is one of them. Anxiety comes from fear. It's the thought of "the unknown" or "not knowing what's going to happen." It also comes from a lack of trust and a feeling of not being safe. Some people think that anxiety is genetic, and others think that it is environmental. In my training as a Marriage and Family Therapist, it comes from learned behavior. The reason it runs in families is because when a child is young, he/she learns behaviors and how to react to stressors from parents. That child grows up and has children, and then shows the same behavior to their children. A family pattern continues from generation to generation. The cycle continues unless someone breaks the pattern.

Amanzingly our brains affect our bodies. Symptoms of anxiety are excessive worry, tightness in chest, and sometimes back, upset stomach (nausea), lightheadedness, trouble breathing, heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, or shaking, trouble sleeping, having problems concentrating, feeling as if the room is getting smaller, disorientation, and feeling irritable and restless. Some of these symptoms mimick a heart attack and many people with anxiety disorder think they are having one. Part of anxiety is panic disorder. This is where people who have panic attacks feel as if they are going to die and have a hard time breathing. They also worry about when the next panic attack may be. It's a constant cycle of worrying. Anxiety disorders are the world's most common mental health disorder. More women are affected by anxiety than men and most develop it during childhood. However, it can develop later in life by sitautional circumstances.

So, how does one heal of anxiety? There are lot of coping skills and techniques that help calm anxiety. Of course, there is medication, but I wouldn't go directly to that source because it interferes with healing. The best way to figure out how to calm the worry and to get it under control is in therapy. Sometimes the therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client can calm anxiety if it's a good fit. The therapuetic relationship between the therapist and the client is supposed to represent the parent and the child dynamic. The therapist is the parent to affirm and validate feelings that the client's parent may have missed. A great technique to help with panic attacks or if anyone who is disoriented is the Grounding Technique. This is where you would pick a spot or an object in the room and connect the objects. For example, I would say "I am sitting in a chair in the living room which is connected to the floor. The floor is connected to the wall etc." This helps to bring people back to the present moment. The best practice is to stay in the present moment. The worst thing we can do is to live in the future or in the past. Some other good things that help anxiety are:

  • A Warm compress (heating pad) on the part of the body that feels tense

  • Drinking something warm (tea, hot chocolate).

  • Stay away from too much caffeine. This can trigger anxiety

  • Taking a hot shower or bath

  • Running your hands under warm water

  • Listening to music, instrumental or meditation music

  • Looking at something beautiful

  • Going to the beach, or a body of water, Lake, waterfalls

  • Touching something soft, like a blanket or a smooth stone

  • Caring for others; volunteer work

  • Exercising; going to the gym, walking or running

  • Being in Nature; hiking

  • Meditation - The Calm app is good to download on your phone.

All of these are great tools to use when having anxiety. Both you and your therapist can discuss where it came from to go deeper in healing. However, we also can recieve healing from our faith. God is in the healing business. It doesn't matter where you are in your spiritual life and your walk with God. He will meet you where you are at. No one has to be perfect to be healed by God. When Jesus was here on earth over 2,000 years ago, he healed many people in his minstry. His work continues today through His church. He gave the authority to the apostles to continue healing after he ascended into Heaven. In Acts 3:6 Apostle Peter said " silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." After he said this, the crippled man walked." This was one of the many miracles that happened with the Apostles. Jesus can and will heal anxiety. All you have to do is ask Him. In the Unbound ministry, we pray with people who want healing. When we pray with a person, we have them say "In the name of Jesus, I renounce anxiety or in the name of Jesus I renounce the spirit of anxiety." This is one of the five keys in the Unbound prayer that leads to freedom.

God wants us to trust him and to rely on Him to take away our worries. Jesus healed me of my anxiety many years ago. The therapist that I saw helped calm it down. However, it really went away when I cam back to the church. I didn't realize how much healing I could get from the Sacraments. These are outward signs of God's grace given to us by Jesus himself. The Eucharist is one of the Sacraments that can be recieved every day at Mass. It's the true presence of Jesus in the bread. It's not a symbol. I noticed when I was anxious, my neck and chest got tight and warm, but once I arrived at church and recieved the Eucharist, my worries started to disappear and the tightness went away. It was a true miracle!

In Conclusion: Healing is a process and a person has to first see that there is a problem. Noticing that you need help is the first step. God gave people to help us. He works through people, through doctors, therapists, nurses etc. He is also in the healing business. If other therapies and techniques have not worked for you, ask Jesus to help you. He is always there, waiting for you.

About the Author: Donna L. Marotto is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Director of Faith Formation and a Lay Franciscan. She can be contacted through email at or visit her website at

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