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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!

Comments

  • Lori Vega
    July 29, 2018

    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.

    reply
    • Keels
      September 3, 2020

      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

      reply
  • Karen
    July 29, 2018

    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.

    reply
    • Suz Bice
      February 6, 2021

      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.

      reply
  • Daniel
    August 6, 2018

    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!

    reply
    • Michelle
      July 14, 2020

      Same here. My panic is adapting and making new or slightly different symptoms. Its so annoying and frustrating

      reply
      • Catherine
        April 18, 2021

        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.

        reply
  • Christina
    November 18, 2018

    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

    reply
    • Lynne
      January 27, 2021

      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.

      reply
  • Beth
    November 19, 2018

    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 !

    reply
  • Kelli Orr
    July 15, 2020

    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.

    reply
  • Debra Hutton
    April 17, 2021

    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.

    reply

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