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A feeling of impending doom is a sensation or impression that something tragic is about to occur.

It’s not unusual to feel a sense of impending doom when you’re in a life-threatening situation, such as a natural disaster or accident. It’s less typical, however, to feel that your life is in danger while you’re at work or resting at home.

A feeling of impending doom can actually be an early sign of a medical emergency. Doctors and medical professionals take a patient seriously when they say they think “something bad is about to happen.”

But to understand if this sense is the harbinger of a possible medical event or if it’s caused by anxiety or depression, you’ll need to consider several factors. After all, a sense of impending doom can also happen during a panic attack. That is a serious but not life-threatening situation.

Keep reading to understand what a sense of impending doom feels like, how it can be diagnosed, and what happens if your doctor suspects it’s an indication of something more serious.

In many cases, a sense of impending doom comes before rather serious medical events, like a heart attack, blood clot, seizure, or poisoning. A feeling of impending doom can often be a sign of an imminent medical event or crisis.

That’s why doctors take the symptom seriously. If a patient reports a feeling that “something bad is about to happen,” doctors don’t dismiss that.

A sense of doom may be the very first symptom. It often happens before other obvious symptoms. Chest pain, for example, is a well-known symptom of a possible heart attack. But before these pains even appear, some people will experience a sinking feeling that something bad is about to happen.

This sensation can and does occur outside of serious medical events. For example, it may be the result of a medical condition. People with bipolar disorder, depression, and panic disorder may experience a feeling of impending doom or find themselves upset and unable to rectify the feeling with an obvious explanation.

What’s more, some people experience a feeling of impending doom after a medical event. Individuals with brain trauma or injury may feel that something devastating is going to occur after these events take place. This is a result of the trauma and likely not a signal of a coming crisis.

Very little research has looked at why this sensation occurs just before a medical emergency. The research that has investigated it suggests it may be related to releases of hormones and chemicals.

These changes may not be detectable the way chest pain or muscle weakness is, but sudden changes in hormones and chemicals can create obvious impacts. One of those may be feeling like something traumatic is about to happen.

A sense of doom may precede the following conditions:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • seizures
  • anaphylaxis
  • cyanide poisoning
  • blood transfusion reactions

Some people with certain mental health conditions may experience this feeling. These conditions include:

  • anxiety
  • panic disorder
  • depression
  • obsessive compulsive disorder

A feeling of impending doom may also be caused by:

  • adrenal gland tumor
  • cardiac tamponade, or the accumulation of fluid in the sac surrounding the heart

Often, a feeling of impending doom will be accompanied by other, more obvious symptoms, including:

  • sudden sweating
  • shaking or tremors
  • heart palpitations
  • nausea
  • hot flashes
  • shortness of breath
  • depersonalization, or feeling as if you’re watching yourself from outside your body

Doctors do take this symptom seriously. To properly diagnose it, they weigh several factors. These include any existing mental health conditions and physical health issues.

For example, the sensation may be the result of anxiety or concerns about life events. Extreme stress or a panic attack can cause this. A doctor will try to assess if these issues are at play before making a diagnosis.

If mental health concerns like anxiety or stress don’t appear to be a factor, your doctor may consider physical issues, like a heart attack. They may monitor you for additional signs or symptoms of an impending health event. If this anticipated health event doesn’t occur, the doctor may assume the sensation is the result of a mental health issue or trauma.

If you’re feeling unwell and have this sensation, you should report it to a doctor. Patients who report they feel something bad is about to happen or feeling uncertain and uncomfortable to an extreme may be giving their doctors a heads up.

when to see your doctor

If you don’t have a health condition that causes feelings of anxiety or panic, the sense that something bad is about to happen could be a warning sign. In short, a feeling of impending doom should be taken seriously.

You need to see a doctor if:

  • you feel that something bad is happening
  • you feel as if you can’t sit still
  • you’re feeling extremely uncertain and unsure but can’t pinpoint why
  • you have an unidentified sense of urgency or anxiety
  • you begin to show other symptoms of possible medical emergencies, such as hot flashes, nausea, sudden sweating, shortness of breath, tremors, or heart palpitations

You don’t treat the feeling of impending doom. You treat the issue that is most likely causing it.

For example, if the sensation is an alert to a medical event, the feeling is likely to pass once the event is over. If it’s the result of an ongoing medical condition, such as a brain injury, treatment for that injury may help eliminate it.

Lastly, if the feeling is caused by a mental health condition, such as anxiety or panic disorder, treatment for that condition will go a long way to eliminating the feeling. Mental health treatment can also help you understand when this sensation is happening and how to reduce it.

Your doctor will pay close attention to this feeling. In part, it could be a sign that a serious event is about to take place. But it could also signal another condition, such as a brain injury or panic disorder, that requires further treatment.

A feeling of impending doom is a very serious symptom. It shouldn’t be taken lightly. In fact, doctors and emergency responders know that the sensation may be telling them something important — that a crisis could be just around the corner.

If you’re experiencing this feeling now, seek emergency medical treatment.

Not all people who feel as if something bad is about to happen will have a serious event, however. People with a history of panic attacks or anxiety may experience this from time to time.

If this has happened to you before, you may want to talk with a psychologist or licensed therapist. These experts can help you understand what might be causing it and what you can do to reduce it.