Why Panic Makes Us Feel Like We’re Dying
Recently, we spoke with an Anxiety Brother who copes with his panic attacks by sitting in the ER—without checking in. On one hand, he knows that he is probably having a panic attack and won’t need medical attention. On the other hand, just in case this time he is having a heart attack, he wants to be close to help. (Abs, a frequent ER visitor herself, thinks this is ingenious.)
Another Anxiety Sister told us that she was chastised by the 911 operator for her “attention seeking behavior.” She is fairly new to panic attacks and has called 911 (and visited the ER) many times in the last few months. Although she has been thoroughly examined, each time she has a panic attack, she is absolutely certain she is dying.
Both of these panic sufferers cannot fathom that a brain illness is the cause of their symptoms and believe the only reasonable explanation is that they are actually in a physical crisis. They are both convinced that, without the proper medical treatment, they will die.
Many of us Panic Sisters can totally relate to this belief, and the anticipation of death is as real during our fiftieth panic attack as it is during our first. Fear of Death (FOD), in fact, is a hallmark symptom of anxiety disorder.
From an evolutionary standpoint, FOD makes complete sense. Our ancestors lived in perpetual danger and had to be hyper-vigilant in order to stay alive. When a saber-toothed tiger was looking for dinner, we had to get out of the way and fast! Although we no longer worry about a wild animal eating us for dinner, our bodies still carry that intense fight-or-flight survival system within us. In panic sufferers, this system is set off even when there is no imminent danger. Panic brains are “trigger-happy” and tend to send out danger signals prematurely, too often and too intensely. Those signals then send our bodies into full alert, thus creating the very natural Fear of Death that has for generations allowed our species to survive. It is quite appropriate, when our bodies feel threatened, to search for safety. That’s where the hospital comes in.
For many panic sufferers, however, even an “all clear” at the emergency room does not convince them that they are out of danger. The same fight-or-flight response that protected our ancestors is signaling that those ER docs have clearly missed something. That’s where the “ists” (cardiologist, herbalist, astrologist, etc.) come in. Panic sufferers will often visit several special “ists” to help them figure out what mystery illness is threatening their lives.
The process can be long and expensive and, ultimately, not very satisfying—those errant brain signals are extremely persuasive and FOD is very motivating!
So how do you deal with FOD? For starters, telling yourself out loud that you are not dying is a really helpful and proven strategy. We find that repeating the mantra “This too shall pass” is a great distraction from FOD. When your brain hears your voice saying, in effect, things will get better, it does start to let go of the more doom-oriented thoughts. In addition, sense-based distractions are a great way to help you ride the panic wave: sucking on a candy with a strong taste (for example, peppermint), inhaling the aroma of lavender, stroking something made of soft material, even listening to music—all of these “ground” you in the present moment and tend to ease panic. You can read more about this here.
Just remember: fearing that you will die during your panic episode is (1) an appropriate response to a faulty brain signal and (2) a symptom of panic disorder, not an immediate reality.
Don’t forget to push our panic button on our website if you need Abs to talk you through it!
I know exactly how you feel, when i have a panic attack or anxiety it feels horrible, thank god for my meds i don’t know where i would be without it.
The night of my sons funeral ( he died suddenly and unexpectedly so i was in an ememse amount of shock) i had an anxiety attack. Never experienced one before. I remember telling my husband I’m gonna stop breathing, my breathing is really shallow, im scared. He took me to the hospital and i insisted with the dr that if i fell asleep i wasn’t going to wake up. Pure convinced, even though he kept showing me my heart rate and oxygen levels were fine. I guess i had a different idea of what a panic attack was, it was super scary
I know how you feel. My Sister passed away suddenly over 6 years ago. I went into a panic attack and went to the ER about 20 times in 2 months. Every time I went everything was fine. I did finally stop going because they treated me badly,like I was wasting their time. I do take anxiety meds. My pain/anxiety attacks were good for a while but for some reason I have been having more of them. I am now obsessed with losing weight and I constantly weigh myself.
My son was killed 43 years ago by a drunk driver. My mother had a hear attack and died 23 months later, my brother in law co.mited suicide, my father hot Alzheimers and cancer and died in 2003, Mt husband had a stroke the day after we retired, he then hot cancer 4 years ago, major surgery..was given 6 months to live, because of our hometown dr and his research, he is free for 3.5 years now, our grandson, a veteran, community suicide lasy year at age 36 leaving w little boys and his wife, hubby has Epilepsy on meds. YES I HAVE PANIC ATTACKS!!!!! But been on very low dose ant-anxiety and made the conscious decision to pray anxiety away. I’m neatly 80 and a survivor. Yes, my panic attacks cause physical symptoms. THANK YOU ABS AND MAGS FOR THE PANIC BUTTON.
I have been dealing with panic attacks anxiety for yrs. They have become slightly different now that I’m older. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. Now, my lips will tingle and I feel weak like I’m going to pass out. Had a MRI, everything was normal. So, I chalk it up to panic.
Same here. Mine started during a horrible divorce when my husband tried to convince friends and family I was crazy. The fight or flight response!! HUGE and so so frightening.
I’ve had panic attacks ever since grad school 5 or 6 years ago. The interesting part for me is that my brain manages to change the style of attack/symptoms as I learn to acknowledge what they are. Hoping that it will eventually get bored with the whole game and move on!
Same here. My panic is adapting and making new or slightly different symptoms. Its so annoying and frustrating
I have had anxiety all my life. But it has become extreme only in the last 5 years or so. My attacks are changing and becomeing more and more involved. They are happening more often. I have been to the hospital, and like another comment, I felt chastised. Thank you for your post.
I get my attacks early morning which make it harder for me to push myself and get ready for work. They are waking me up around 3 am so it makes it hard for me to fall back asleep any recommendations or tips on what would help
I know how you feel. Mine usually hits me around 3 or 4am. I either lay there and do deep breathing or I put my headphones on and listen to a story or white noise sounds with the ocean in the background but I can never get back to sleep right away.
4 capsules of Valerian root right before bed
I suffer with aniexty and depression , but I don’t have panic attacks !
If I get upset discussing my problems ie with a trusted friend or counsellor I cry and shake !
This is again a fight and flight release , but doesn’t hamper my breathing , just my hole body shakes !
Once it begins there no stopping it until it makes its way out of my body !
I have both anxiety and panic attacks. I trigger the panic attacks by encountering bee’s and flying insects. I have nearly passed out from fear a few times. Meds help a little, one of the things it helps with is the immediate aftermath. Even though my heart is racing and I feel like I’m going to die, I calm down much faster. But my immediate response is to run, scream, and faint. I often cry from sheer relief and adrenaline after the attack The meds can’t really help with that. But this was very useful. I have used the 5 senses method of helping me calm down. Don’t know if this post will be useful to anyone. Hope so.
I have had two episodes of interstitial lung disease and both times I thought I was going to die and spent a week in the hospital so I wouldn’t. Now I have severe anxiety and it revolves around air hunger. Will it ever just go away? These episodes were years apart.
I also panic going to the doctor… bp soars… heart races.. im a mess. It’s a nasty cycle… i get a pain or i have short of Breath… im Terrified that im Sick but im more Terrified to see a Doctor… its insane. I’m Cognizant of my Situation yet i panic…
After my hysterectomy (kept ovaries) my anxiety shot Through the roof and has been a constant burden for me. My panic attacks feel like I’m having a heart attack and are very scary. I went to the hospital for my first one, and now that I know how they feel, I get scared at first, but can tqlk myself down. I cannot ingest even the smallest amount of Caffeine, or it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.
I studied the hysterectomy/anxiety connection, and it’s a real thing.
I found the PMDD support groups on facebook to be very helpful with anxiety caused by hormonal issues. I’m the same way with caffeine as well.
Interesting..I also had a hysterectomy with kept ovaries and it seemed like my anxiety and panic attacks got worse. I am learning how to deal with them better,but I’m so tired of having them for every little issue. Prayers and hugs
I suffer anxiety attacks nearly two weeks strait a month because of pMDD. I too for the last few years will just sit in an ER waiting room just in case. I have spent far too much time there just in order to feel ‘safe’. Now since COVID restrictions and having a special-needs child that i cannot afford care for due to his needs-the ER sitting has not been an option. I had to move anyway for my son’s needs, so I found a place practically right next door to a free standing ER. sometimes I will go and just sit in the parking lot right outside the door and let my child obsess over the ipad to feel safe. It isn’t a big deal as home is so close. As I get better and better at managing my symptoms and the doctors are getting closer to helping, I am able to stay home the majority of the time during an attack. Just knowing there is help close calms me. Baby steps, right?
I’ve been struggling with anxiety/panic attacks for about seven months; just out of nowhere. It feels like a heart attack at first. I did the ER visits. I now know certainly what happens. Deep breathing helps. But it seems afterwards i cry a lot. For no particular reason. It’s vicious and therapy does seem to help a little. I’m still working through meds to find one that helps some. Good luck to all of you. I know how hard living with this is.
I love your panic button feature, but it’s kinda icky that we can hear the stuff in your nose during the breathing in Parts. Not a criticism, just a loving suggestion from a devoted fan.