A young woman sought psychological services after her cardiologist referred her for stress management and treatment of “heart attack” symptoms. This 36-year-old woman had the world by the tail. Marketing director for a local high-tech firm, she was in line for promotion to vice president. She drove a new sports car, traveled extensively, and was socially active.
Although on the surface everything seemed fine, she felt that, “the wheels on my tricycle are about to fall off. I’m a mess.” Over the past several months she had attacks of shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pains, dizziness, and tingling sensations in her fingers and toes. Filled with a sense of impending doom, she would become anxious to the point of panic. Every day she awoke with a dreaded feeling that an attack might strike without reason or warning.
On two occasions, she rushed to a nearby hospital emergency room fearing she was having a heart attack. The first episode followed an argument with her boyfriend about the future of their relationship. After studying her electrocardiogram, the emergency room doctor told her she was “just hyperventilating” and showed her how to breathe into a paper bag to handle the situation in the future. She felt foolish and went home embarrassed, angry and confused. She remained convinced that she had almost had a heart attack.
Her next severe attack occurred after a fight at work with her boss over a new marketing campaign. This time she insisted that she be hospitalized overnight for extensive diagnostic tests and that her internist be consulted. The results were the same–no heart attack. Her internist prescribed a tranquilizer to calm her down.
Convinced now that her own doctor was wrong, she sought the advice of a cardiologist, who conducted another battery of tests, again with no physical findings. The doctor concluded that stress was the primary cause of the panic attacks and “heart