Some Facts on Why a Panic Attack Can't Really Kill You
Your panic attack cannot kill you. Of all the things I have learned, this is by far the most crucial. When you are in that moment of panic, your heart is racing, your mind is lost, you're having trouble breathing, and you may feel like you're going to die. When I had my first major panic attack, I thought I was about to die. I was literally saying my good-byes to the world as I paced back and forth in my bathroom at 5am. I awoke my wife, unsure if I was going to be saying good-bye to her forever or having her drive me to the ER. But upon waking (and scaring the Hell out of her) I was able to get some comfort and began to calm down. It soon passed and a state of confusion took over for the fear. I will get to that in another post. But, although I sure felt like this must be the end for me, it surely wasn't. This was years ago and I am still alive and kicking.
Your panic attack simply does not have the ability to kill you. I will explain why. The panic attack is created entirely by you. It may seem to be triggered by outside factors, but really it is all coming from your amygdala, a primal part of your brain that controls feelings such at the fight-or-flight response. If you have an anxiety disorder, this fight-or-flight response is simply being misdirected. It is being triggered when it really isn't needed. This is what makes it so scary. If you stubbed your toe while going for a glass of water in the middle of the night, you would feel pain, but you wouldn't feel fear because you know the source of your pain is from the corner of that chair that was left where it shouldn't be. If you felt that same pain just now as you're sitting at your computer desk reading this, you'd be extremely alarmed. The reason is that you wouldn't know the source of the pain. The same is true with anxiety. If you feel scared while facing a legitimate threat, say you are facing an angry bear, you are going to feel anxiety and panic for sure. But it will be well placed. Your amygdala is giving you instinctual fuel to get yourself out of that dangerous situation quickly. You will flea and the panic and fear will leave you shortly after the threat is gone.
But, in the case of an anxiety disorder, you are experiencing that same fight-or-flight response when there is no legitimate threat. This makes it all the more alarming. You don't have anywhere to direct this fight-or-flight. There is nothing to fight and there is nowhere for you to direct your flight. This perpertuates the fear. In the analogy of the bear, you would simply have learned to be afraid any time you saw a bear. In the anxiety case, your brain will simple place the same type of association with whatever stimulus is around at the time. If you were driving over a bridge when your panic attack hit you, your brain my end up putting a fear association with bridges and you may begin to feal anxiety when crossing bridges. That's the way these things work. It's important to understand why these associations are there in order to get past them.
The panic attack is created entirely by your amygdala, a part of your brain. You have no direct control over the amygdala. You can only control the input that is directed towards it. If it recieves the signal for panic, it will act accordingly. You have the ability though to change how other parts of your brain operate in order to inhibit the signals of panic from being sent to the amygdala unneccessarily. This comes with a deep understanding of who you are and how you think. You have to change the negative thought patterns that are contributing to these false signals being sent over to that primal part of your brain.
With an understanding of the amygdala comes the realization that it does not have the ability to destroy itself. The human body is not equipped with a "self-destruct" button. Have you ever played in the swimming pool to see which of your friends can hold their breath the longest? The overwhelming urge to return the surface will happen long before you really run out of life-sustaining oxygen. Sit now and try to stop your heart from beating. It cannot be done. Your amygdala is also responsible for this. It keeps your heart beating, your lungs breathing, and all of your other primary functions going. It also triggers that natural fight-or-flight response that becomes a panic attack when misdirected. It simply does not have the ability to end your life. The amygdala's primary function is to sustain your life. It is a very primal part of your brain and just does not have the option to do anything else.
It can not destroy itself and thus it cannot destroy you. Having faith in this can go a long way to stopping that panic attack before it eats you alive. Acceptance is one of the most advocated methods for overcoming anxiety, and for good reason. Acceptance becomes a lot easier when you realize, with confidence, that there is an end. You will survive the panic attack. It will last no longer than 20 minutes, usually much shorter than that, and then your life will continue. If you tell yourself this, and truly believe it, when panic begins to set in you may find yourself just coasting on in peace.
Best of luck!