Your heart is racing, you feel like the room is closing in around you and you’re having a hard time breathing. Your chest feels tight. You worry you might be having a heart attack. You may even go to the hospital just to be sure. After waiting there for several hours, they tell you that nothing is wrong with you, and that you should go home and get some rest. Sound familiar?
Many people with anxiety feel like they are dying when they have an anxiety attack. However, as much as your brain tries to tell you otherwise, anxiety cannot kill you. This article will talk about how common this feeling is, why it happens, and what you can do about it in the future.
How Common is This Feeling?
Mistaking an anxiety attack for a heart attack or some other fatal disease is incredibly common with anxiety. One anxiety sufferer wrote about having anxiety so severe that she thought she was going to faint. Most people with anxiety have a story or two like this.
Symptoms of anxiety can become so overwhelming that you feel like you have no choice but to seek emergency help. Treating anxiety costs the US $42 billion a year, and half of that comes from people mistaking anxiety symptoms for severe conditions like heart attacks and seeking emergency treatment.
Why You Feel Like You’re Going to Die
There’s actually a straightforward answer as to why you feel like you’re going to die. Feeling anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when our ancient ancestors were faced with life threatening dangers, their sense of anxiety save their life. This stress is also called the fight, flight, or freeze reflex. This reflex triggers when your brain perceives a threat that you need to react to immediately.
However, in a more modern setting, that reflex that might have saved your ancient ancestor’s life can lead to complications. Our mind may perceive an innocuous scenario as threatening. Whether the perceived threat will hurt you or is simply someone saying something that put you on edge, your body still activates a stress response. When this stress response becomes chronic, it leads to anxiety disorders.
The human body undergoes several changes when the mind activates the fight, flight, or freeze reflex. This reflex primarily affects your nervous system, and causes your heart to speed up and your breathing to become faster. These responses can feel similar to a heart attack, but your body is activating them in response to a perceived threat.
In order to better understand why you can feel like you’re dying when you’re having an anxiety attack, it can help to realize what an anxiety attack looks and feels like. Here are some common symptoms.
- Fast or hard heartbeat
- Feeling short of breath
- Tightness in your chest
- Sweating excessively
- Getting tremors or twitches
- Having aches in your head or body
- Feeling weak or fatigued
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Digestive issues, including nausea, diarrhea, and upset stomach
- Feeling a frequent need to urinate
- Constant worry
- Fears that overcome you
- Thoughts you can’t get to leave
- Avoiding people or places that could exacerbate anxiety
- Feeling restless
- Difficulty concentrating
What to Do When You Feel Like You’re Going to Die
Knowing how to manage your fight, flight, or freeze response can help you reduce your anxiety and prevent situations that might make you feel like you’re dying. One of the best ways to do that is to identify thoughts that cause you anxiety. When you are able to identify what causes you anxiety, you’ll be in a better place to ground yourself and give you the tools to help reason through your anxiety attack.
If you are convinced that you are dying, try to reason out what is prompting that response before seeking medical attention. Common mental anxiety symptoms include feelings of dread, nervousness, and obsessing over things that don’t bother most people. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, then chances are good that you are experiencing an intense period of anxiety and not a heart attack. If you still think that you might be suffering a heart attack, try to ask someone close to you what they think. If they think you are experiencing something life threatening, then make sure to get medical attention.
Now that you’ve established that you’re experiencing an anxiety or panic attack, the best thing you can do is to find ways to help yourself calm down. Spire was created to help people who suffer from anxiety and chronic stress. By tracking your breathing, Spire can tell when you are feeling a little tense and will suggest some breathing exercises in an effort to help you calm down. Check out how it works here.
One of the best things you can do for your overall mental health is to seek treatment for the long term. While there are things you can do to address your anxiety in the moment, a mental health professional will be better equipped to help you recover and get your anxiety in check. There are several different kinds of treatment that have been proven to help manage, and even decrease anxiety.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is one of the most popular forms of therapy, and has been proven to help treat sources of anxiety. CBT works on the principle that our thoughts affect our feelings, instead of being affected by the situation around us. Through this methodology, CBT can give you techniques to address the causes of your fears and worries, and will also give you several tools to work on those fears until they no longer hold so much power over you. Most therapists use CBT in their practices, so your best bet in starting CBT is to find a therapist that you like.
- Medication: There are several types of medication that have been proven to help reduce anxiety symptoms. One of the most commonly prescribed are anti-depressants. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors help by preventing certain parts of the brain from absorbing too much serotonin or norepinephrine. Other helpful medications include beta blockers, antihistamines, and anticonvulsants. A psychiatrist can help you figure out what kind of medication is best to help your anxiety.
- Exercise: getting the right amount of exercise has also proven to help mental health overall by giving your anxiety an outlet. Getting physical exercise helps decrease your body’s level of tension and helps improve your sleep and mood. Even getting a ten minute walk will give you the anti anxiety effects of exercise.
- Yoga and Meditation: One study has found that regular yoga practices helps drastically reduce anxiety levels. While many people are hesitant to start trying yoga, those who practiced it for 10 days found a significant decrease in their overall anxiety levels. Being mindful helps improve your mental focus and gives your brain tools to help be aware of how you are feeling.
- Embracing Your Anxiety: Many times trying to fight anxiety leads to being more anxious instead of less. Learning to accept and embrace your anxiety will help you to confront the problem instead of just trying to avoid it. Telling yourself that it is okay to be anxious helps you accept that you are dealing with a problem instead of trying to shame yourself for it. Practicing anxiety acceptance can help to decrease your overall anxiety levels.
Anxiety can make you feel like the world is ending. Feeling like you are dying is a common mistake made by people who feel anxious all the time. However, most of the time, your mind is getting away from you and jumping to conclusions. Try to remember that your anxiety is making things out to be worse than they are, and work on getting yourself to a calm and peaceful state of mind. Getting long term treatment can also help reduce the likelihood of anxiety attacks, and help you live a happier life.