Why Panic Makes Us Feel Like We’re Dying

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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!

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