Your heart is beating out of your chest like a drum, your vision starts to go blurry, sweat is beginning to pour out of crevices from places you didn’t even know you had crevices, and that overwhelming sense of doom has encompassed every thought your brain can fire off. Either you just found out your mother-in-law will be staying with you the entire week of Thanksgiving, or you, my friend, are experiencing a panic attack.
While your body is seemingly experiencing a chernobyl like meltdown, the thought racing through your mind won’t be “what’s for dinner?” It’s going to be “so this is what the last few moments before the Grim Reaper shows up feel like,” as you wait for that slideshow of your life to flash before your eyes. You can tell yourself to calm down and relax, but how are you supposed to do that when every organ inside of your body feels like a runaway Amtrak train going 100 MPH and about to go off the rails?
Everything I’m saying doesn’t come to you courtesy of an overpriced text book or my 9th grade Health 101 class, but rather from first hand experience. Four years ago I joined the non-exclusive panic attack club, and it was one club from which I wish my membership had been revoked. I remember my first attack vividly. It was an ordinary day at work, and then suddenly, without even the common courtesy of a slight warning, it felt like an earthquake going on inside my body. A 7.9 on the Richter scale! Then a tornado, followed by a hurricane, and a tsunami to cap it off. My boss called an ambulance because I was certainly showing all the signs that the end of days was knocking at my front door. My blood pressure was through the roof, every pore on my body opened up like a sprinkler head, and I was sweating profusely. My breathing was rapid like a hairy dog on a hot summer day, and I was…well…as the name says…panicking! But then something funny happened as I took that (very expensive) ambulance ride to the hospital. I started to feel…better? What was going on? Less than an hour earlier I was googling “what happens to student loans when you die?” And now my body’s check engine light had suddenly turned off and I started to feel normal again. As they rolled me out of the (crazy expensive) ambulance and into a room, I think they all knew what I was about to find out. As a precaution, they still hooked me up to all sorts of tubes and wires like an old Atari, as I waited patiently for the doctor to come in and tell me my fate. I was overjoyed when he didn’t walk in with a priest or a guy to take my measurements for the casket, but instead slapped me with two nuggets of knowledge that only the finest medical school could provide.
1) I had just been rushed to the hospital, fast and furious style, for a very non-life-threatening panic attack
2) I could expect a bill to arrive in the mail shortly (did I mention how freaking expensive ambulance rides are?)
So, Can You Really Die from a Panic Attack
So…back to the question at hand…can you die from a panic attack? Nay. Noh. Nine. Nyet. In any language, the answer is NO! You cannot and will not die from a panic attack. That’s the good news! But then how do I explain those very REAL feelings I felt when my own body had me saying my hail marys and making my peace with God? Were those feelings of panic all made up in my head? Am I just crazy? That’s where it gets tricky. I’m not crazy. You’re not crazy. And those feelings of body overdrive are very real. It took me two years, following my fateful ambulance ride (seriously, why are ambulance rides sooo expensive!?), of subsequent panic attacks before I finally reached out and got help. TWO years! For two years, even though there was that doctor’s voice in the back of my head telling me “you’re not going to die, this is just your body’s natural response to anxiety,” there was always a much louder, much deeper, almost Ving Rhames-ish voice. But instead of saying “we have the meats,” he was shouting “you’re going to die! You´re definitely going to die!!!” Even though deep down I knew better, it sure felt like I was going to be the first person in history with “panic attack”as their official cause of death on their death certificate.
Despite what your Ving Rhames voice (or maybe your voice sounds like Pee Wee Herman…I don’t know) is yelling at you, you are not dying. That is the single most important thing to remember. This is going to pass and you are going to be okay. There are a few other tips I picked up when I was dealing with regular panic attacks (yes, that is past tense, so there is hope for you!).
Tip for When You Are Having a Panic Attack
- Reassure Yourself – Tell yourself over and over what you already know. I would remind myself that I’ve never won anything. I’ve never won the lottery, I didn’t win my 3rd grade spelling bee, I’ve never won anything on the Mcdonald’s Monopoly board, so what makes me think I’m going to be the ONE person that’s going to succumb to a panic attack? It’s just not happening.
- Breathe – During a panic attack, there are very few things your body lets you control. It pretty much just goes on autopilot and takes you for the ride. But if you focus, your breathing is one thing you can get control of. Breath in through your nose for 4-5 seconds, hold it for 3-4 seconds and then breath out through your mouth. Continue this just to show your panic attack that you’re in charge, not him.
- Take Inventory – Just like you did at your first job at the Piggly Wiggly, take note of every part of your body, and rationalize how every part is operating together. Your vision is blurry? Well that’s because your blood pressure has gone up. You feel weak and dizzy? That’s because your heart rate has increased. Your heart rate is up because your body is in a fight or flight response. Every system is doing a job, and ultimately it’s doing it to protect you from a perceived danger.
- Distract Yourself – Play some music in your headphones, call someone on the phone, or go for a walk outside. Do something to distract your body and mind from your attack. The less attention you give to it, the quicker it will end.
- Get Help – One of my biggest regrets is going two years trying to navigate my panic attacks on my own. Honestly, I thought I could. But that didn’t really get me anywhere. Talking to a therapist on a regular basis, using CBT therapy, and learning techniques that helped me cope eventually got me to a place where the panic attacks were few and far between. Places like Overt have every tool and resource you need, from trained professionals to education, to help you on your way.
Can you die from a die from a panic attack? Nah, and you know what they say? what can’t kill you, can only make you stronger!