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I’m Dying: What a Panic Attack Feels Like

by Mike · 379 comments

The term “panic attack” is part of our common language. We hear it all the time.

“When I saw the electricity bill I just had a panic attack!” Or, “I had a panic attack when I woke up and saw I was two hours late for work!” Or, “When I realized I’d just eaten a raw oyster I about had a panic attack!” All these statements are inaccurate uses of the term “panic attack,” and are what are called clinomorphisms, or exaggerated use of a medical term.

Panic attacks are no laughing matter, and people who have the real ones cringe when they hear the term bandied about in everyday speech like it was nothing. They know the feeling that you are about to die, the intense fear, and the sudden onset are far more than what most people think of as a “panic attack.”

So how does it really feel to have a panic attack? Few people, aside from panic attack sufferers themselves, really know. It’s the purpose of this post to give you an insider’s view of what it actually feels like to have a panic attack. 

Check out the article What Panic Attacks Have Taught Me for more help on overcoming Panic Attacks. And can panic attacks physically harm you? Panic Attacks Can’t Hurt You–Really! says no!

What exactly is a panic or anxiety attack?

Sudden surge of overwhelming fear

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason. It is far more intense than the feeling of being “stressed out” that most people experience. A panic attack is marked by:

  • Occurring suddenly, without any warning and without any way to stop it.
  • The level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual situation, and is often completely unrelated.
  • It passes in a few minutes, however, repeated attacks can continue to recur for hours.

For detailed information on panic attacks, please see the “Panic Attacks” reference article, For help making it through a panic attack, see the post, “Are You Having a Panic Attack? What Can You Do?” 

What do psychiatrists say are the symptoms of a panic attack?

The “official” criteria for panic attacks

First, let’s get the “official” criteria for determining whether what you are feeling is a panic attack or not. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association is the standard for diagnosis of mental disorders all over the world. 

It requires that at least four of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within 10 minutes for a diagnosis of panic attack:

1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate

2. Sweating

3. Trembling or shaking

4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering

5. Feeling of choking

6. Chest pain or discomfort

7. Nausea or abdominal distress

8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint

9. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)

10. Fear of losing control or going crazy

11. Fear of dying

12. Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)

13. Chills or hot flushes

My panic attacks

Muscle constrictions, pounding heart, weakness and tingling, and fear of losing control

I hesitate to insert a personal side to this post, but since I have first-hand knowledge of how it feels to have a  panic attack, I believe it is appropriate to describe mine. Each of my panic attacks is a little different, but all follow the same general outline: muscle constrictions, pounding heart, weakness and tingling, and fear of losing control and fainting.

My panic attacks start with muscle constrictions and tingling around the eyes, then the feeling spreads to my mouth and lower face. I develop a headache and feel a choking muscle constriction in my neck and tightening of my chest. There is a funny feeling in my chest, like shooting electricity. My heart starts pounding, my breathing is constricted and I feel very weak, especially in my arms and hands. A tingly feeling spreads over my whole body. I have a sense of unreality, of watching myself from a distance, and a growing fear of being unable to control myself. As things escalate, I desperately look for someplace — any place — to escape to. At its peak, I feel like I am going to faint and if things continue, I will surely die.

What do others say are their symptoms during a panic attack?

An informal compiled list of symptoms

Panic attacks are by their nature subjective experiences, and like all subjective experiences, are open to the interpretation and description of the sufferer. Following is an informal compiled list of symptoms from Wikipedia. They are grouped under “physical,” “mental,” “emotional,” and “perceptual” headings:

Physical

  • A sensation of adrenaline going through your entire body
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Stomach Problems (spastic colon)
  • Racing or pounding heartbeat or palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea or stomach pains
  • Hyperventilation
  • Choking or smothering sensations
  • Hot flashes
  • Cold flashes
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands, face, feet or mouth (paresthesia)
  • Feelings of “crawly,” “itchy,” or “cringy” skin sensations.
  • Burning sensations
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling of claustrophobia
  • Feeling like the body is shutting down and/or dying
  • Tremors in the legs and thighs
  • Tingling spine
  • Feeling like one is experiencing a heart attack
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle spasms
  • Feeling of physical weakness or limpness of the body
  • Grinding teeth or tensing other muscles repeatedly or for prolonged periods of time
  • Temporary blindness
  • Sizzling or ringing in ears

Mental

  • Intense and/or frightening realizations of reality
  • Loss of the ability to react logically to stimuli
  • Loss of cognitive ability in general
  • Racing thoughts (often based on fear)
  • Irrational thoughts
  • Loud internal dialogue
  • Feeling like nothing is real
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • Feeling of “going crazy”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling like no one understands what is happening
  • Vision is somewhat impaired (eyes may feel like they are shaking.)
  • Feeling like you are going to die any second
  • Avoidance behavior
  • Agoraphobia

Emotional

  • Terror, or a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it
  • Fear that the panic is a symptom of a serious illness
  • Fear that the panic will not subside
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of living
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Flashbacks to earlier panic trigger
  • Intense “scared” feeling
  • Fear of failure

Perceptual

  • Tunnel vision
  • Heightened senses
  • The apparent slowing down or speeding up of time
  • Dream-like sensation or perceptual distortion (derealization)
  • Dissociation, or the perception that one is not connected to the body or is disconnected from space and time (depersonalization)
  • Feeling of loss of free will, as if acting entirely automatically without control

If you think that you are having panic attacks…

Panic attacks are not dangerous in themselves

If you are experiencing four or more of the symptoms listed by the DSM-IV for panic attacks within 10 minutes, you need to contact your doctor as soon as possible. Panic attacks are not dangerous in and of themselves, though you often feel like you’re dying. But the avoidance of the situations that trigger panic attacks can very rapidly lead to a severe constriction of your life, to Panic Disorder, and to Agoraphobia. The danger is not in the panic attacks, but in what they can lead to.

Panic attacks are one of the most treatable of the Anxiety Disorders, and many times a mental health professional can help you manage them without the use of drugs. The course of treatments is often not very long, and you will have the ability to control your condition for the rest of your life. 

What do you think?

  • Do you have panic attack symptoms that are not listed here?
  • Can you describe your own panic attacks?
  • What do you think of people who misuse the term “panic attack?”

What can you do now?

Your comments are always welcome, and are important to this blog’s community! Leave a comment now.

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©2008 Anxiety, Panic & Health. All rights reserved.

Resources used in this post:
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. 1994.
Wikipedia. (2008). Panic attack. Retrieved June 28, 2008 from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_attack

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrissie August 11, 2013 at 12:41 am

i too always assume i am having a heart attack or brain tumor or cancer….my problem is i think the worst in all situations,i wont even let my 13 yr old cross the streetwithout me watching..i have to seek help because i dont want this to happen to my kids

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Jerah September 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm

It happened last night. I was outside with my friend watching a video and all of a sudden I had this tingly sensation hit my body and I felt like I was going to faint. I layed down and that’s when I started to sweat really bad. I could also feel bowel movements happening. The majority of it last 10 minutes or less. I had a solid stool at night but woke up at 5 am and had diarrhoea and some stomach pains. It’s 1230 pm now and I still feel a little weird. No dizzy spells or sweating, just weakness I guess. I also took my temperature last night and this morning and no fever. A tiny bit low last night and normal this morning

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Mary September 5, 2013 at 3:07 am

My trigger for panic attacks is palpitations, that is when my heart starts ‘fluttering’ or putting in extra/missed beats. It is such a horrible feeling and always, always makes me feel very panicky and anxious. I have a condition that causes my heart to race, for which I am on beta blockers, so I am especially sensitive and anxious of anything to do with heart symptoms.

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Kelly November 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm

I can’t tell you all how happy I am that I found this place. I am 39 years old and have been dealing with panic attacks (and what I think is GAD) for the last 5-6 years or so. I have always been an “uptight” person (just high strung I guess), but my first major PA sent me straight to the ER over 5 years ago, not knowing what was going on. I had had many smaller/minor PAs before this one, but I didn’t know what was going on. The major one had me with horrible chest pains, shortness of breath, tingling down my left side, and horrible shaking and the fear that I was having a major heart attack. After having a follow up with my general Dr., he prescribed me 20 mg of Celexa daily (I take the generic) and it defintely does help level me out most days. I still have a random PA about once a year, but the more minor ones I was having before the big one hit me 5-6 years ago are pretty much gone. My trigger, without a doubt, is stress. I have never been good at controlling my stress; it got so bad a year ago that I gave myself an ulcer from all of the worrying I do… worrying about my children, my job, and life in general. I have started taking 30 mg of Lansoprazole (Rx strength Prevacid) and that has helped my stomach/chest pains in more ways than I can describe. I also try to have a little bit of alone time daily, even if it’s just 5-10 minutes for me to clear my thoughts, do some relaxed breathing and to help ease any tension build up. I can’t tell you all how comforting it is to know that there are others out there who really are just like me.

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Karen January 27, 2014 at 9:46 am

First of all, thank you so much for this very informative and helpful article. I have suffered with anxiety/panic attacks for 30+ years and so know very well that this information is accurate. I think for me the most difficult thing is, every single time I have a panic attack, it feels like it happens constantly, when in reality it could have been months since my last one. I also have an arrythmia which I think makes panic attack happen more often, or maybe the panic attacks make the arrythmia happen more often. All I know is it seems like a vicious cycle. Thanks again for this info.

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Sonja February 15, 2014 at 2:43 pm

I feel like i need to break a wind, and have to lean forward to do so.
My throat feels dry but the thought of drinking water, and choking is too scary.

I drive leaning forward all the time untill i can feel the attack is over, it is scary when you are alone, but even worse in Public.

I feel extremely afraid to travell in speedy Cabs, or Speed trains, I get clausterphobic and really faint, at times I think i will choke and die.

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Mr. Bruch March 2, 2014 at 4:18 am

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. But panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With treatment, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic and regain control of your life.

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ANDY March 19, 2014 at 6:09 pm

I’m retired and have had panic/anxiety problems since I was 18. Mostly dizziness, headaches every day, all day, for several months, then they would go away for several months, and then come back. I’ve had spinal taps, CAT scans, MRI scans of the brain. Once or twice I had heart attack symptoms, tingling, hot flashes (though I’m a man). Before modern medication I would drink a 12 pack of beer a day to help relieve the symptoms. This was before Xanax, Prozac, Etc. Then one day I was given Halcion for sleep. I ended up taking it in the daytime because my symptoms VANISHED! I ended up on Xanax since Halcion was not approved for my problems even though it worked the best. I’ve been on Xanax since 1987, dosages from 1 mg a day to 4.5 mg a day, up and down over the years, currently on 1 mg a day. Some DR’s hated the stuff and wanted me off of it, but I quit those and hired others who were more reasonable with me. Xanax works for me. I have not had to go to higher and higher dosages, but have gone up and down with the amounts according to my symptoms. I do not care one whit if one can become dependent on it. IT WORKS and allows me to function normally. It beats being miserable. My profound sympathy and prayers for all who suffer from this malady. I read about one guy who went through the D-Day invasion and later on had panic attacks. He said he would rather go through the invasion again rather than suffer from the panic attacks. Peace.

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dyane May 22, 2014 at 5:56 am

I also suffer from anxiety its really bad in the mornings sometimes i hate to go to bed knowing i am going to wake up in the am having a anxiety attack i stay awake untill it gets light outside before i could go back to sleep i dont want to take medicine for it what to do

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Glenn May 27, 2014 at 8:49 am

Is suffering somehow helping you? Life is too short. I would take medications. If your brain chemistry is messed up and you don’t take medications a question arises. Is misery worth it?

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Joe N June 12, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I had an extremely bad panic attack in February and its now June. I haven’t had another attack since but I’ve felt horrible ever since. I see lights travel across my vision throughout the day, my heat pounds and skips beats to the point of being very uncomfortable at random points, I spent 3 days terrified to drive because the only thing i could really focus on was a license plate or tale lights which i assume is what tunnel vision is like. I’ve felt disassociated ever since that attack like im on autopilot unable to enjoy anything or get excited about anything. This came on very suddenly in February and now its like a switch has been turned on that I cant turn off is this what its supposed to feel like or am i suffering from something else?

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guest July 22, 2014 at 2:47 am

i feel worried and i feel my ears blocked help plz

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Mike July 22, 2014 at 11:26 am

Hello! The articles on this site with their comments are the best help I can offer. Please don’t fall for the “get cured quick” scams!

I am not a trained or licensed mental health professional, therefore I can neither diagnose your problems nor offer professional advice. I advise you strongly to seek help from a professional mental health practitioner. You might benefit most from a therapist who offers the “CBT” style of therapy.
Mike recently posted…10 Signs You May Have an Anxiety DisorderMy Profile

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Tammy McKenzie July 22, 2014 at 4:06 pm

I was driving to work this morning and a thought came to my mind that I was going to die today why would I have such a thought ?

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Keeley August 26, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Another symptom that happened to me was that my hands moved non stop(more than just shaking) and I had no way to control them. And also that the whole panic attack itself seems like a blur.

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Amanda February 5, 2015 at 12:43 am

I worry about every pain nausea headache….my chest feels funny my mind worries if this will be my last moments breathing….will I die alone? Will I die away from my loved ones? Will I die in my sleep? I dont want to die….now I can get daydreams where I picture my family mourning me or my funeral…or I think of things id say before dying and then I freak out and start to worry….I can barely get through a work day some days of the month…worried about this pituitary tumor i have or how high my heart rate is…..its very isolating…I hide it 28 days of the month until I get sick or have bad pms and then I breakdown

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Jessica May 20, 2015 at 6:19 pm

My panic attacks are definitely more mental/emotional than physical. I’ve had two big ones recently. The first one, I didn’t know was a panic attack. The second one I knew what was going on. In the back of my mind, I knew what I was feeling was a panic attack but an overwhelming part of my brain was telling me that I was dying. Time just seems to pass a little slower and nothing seems real. And I feel like I’m going crazy. My heart is racing because I’m scared and I keep feeling like I’m going to pass out. But I’ve never felt any pain or anything. It’s all psychological.

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Jade B June 19, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Hi I’m wondering if anybody could diagnose a mental problem that’s associated at the moment as anxiety. I need help in controlling my panic attacks and im experiencing tingling in the arms and legs, feeling spaced out, light headed, racing heartbeat. Please if anyone could help me it would be much appreciated as its affecting my life massively. Thanks

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GLENN June 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm

See a doctor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Jelisa August 26, 2015 at 2:50 pm

I suffer with panic disorder. My symptoms and everything get very bad. I also have physical pain. Along with it. Even putting it into words wouldn’t be enough to describe how bad it feels. I don’t like it when people mis-use the term panic attack. Or if someone says “I think” I’ve had a panic attack. Believe me, you would know if you’ve had one. I deal with this daily and I wish that I could just get rid of it. I recently started therapy and and fixing to go to to the doctor. I constantly feel smothered. It gets more worse the higher my anxiety goes. I get the adrenaline feel all through out my body, I feel smothered, I have pressure in my head , nose, and ears, I feel weak and heavy like I can barely walk, I feel like I’m being choked or my throat is closing, I get cold sweaty feet and hands, I shake and tremble, my chest hurts, and feels like my heart is going to give up on me, I get shooting pains in my back and belly, my muscles constantly stay sore, I get dizzy like I’m going to pass out, sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body, my breathing is weird, like my surroundings are in a cloud and everything is foggy, I’ve felt like stuff was in my eyes….. I’m sure there is more that I’m forgetting to mention.. To who ever has this, know you’re not alone. I hate it.

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Dave
Twitter:
August 26, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Hi Jelisa,

So sorry to hear that you are experiencing panic attacks. They are definitely not something you’d wish on anyone and can be so debilitating as well as hard to overcome. Most all of the symptoms that you listed stem from the release of chemicals into your body (primarily Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine) as part of the “fight or flight” reaction that occurs. It’s all a good thing when you really *do* have to get out of danger (think faster, run faster, have increased immediate energy, etc.), but when it all of a sudden happens when there is no danger and it just “overcomes” you, it is very scary and confusing (i.e. I am dying).

I hope that you are able to find relief and an eventual end to this. And no, you are not alone either. :-)

Take care,
Dave

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Joan April 9, 2016 at 2:48 am

I experienced what my Doctor told me had been an “anxiety/stress-induced” vasovagal attack? It came out of the blue when I was driving. Firstly my legs, arm and face from the nose down felt numb and tingly. My throat felt tight and heartbeat was pounding in my throat. I also started to feel faint and detached so, of course, stopped my car on the side of the road and assumed I was dying. I considered going in to the shop nearby and asking them to call an ambulance but I wasn’t sure if I could walk there. I sat in the car for a while longer and then risked the drive to pick up my daughter (if I was dying I wanted to see her first) Honestly the scariest feeling and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

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Mike April 9, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Hi Joan,
Thank you for your comment!
My first panic attack was while I was driving, too. I was on my way to teach at my studio and had to pull over to the side of the road. Finally, I was able to go on, but I was late. Felt very strange the rest of the day.
Mike recently posted…10 Signs You May Have an Anxiety DisorderMy Profile

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Sally April 14, 2016 at 11:49 am

So glad I found this site as I just thought I was having a heart attack just now. It came out of the blue and wasn’t sure if I should visit a doctor but from the symptoms I think it was my first panic attack in 20 years!

I got palpations, shortness of breath, chest pain and nearly passed out. But literally 5 minutes later I was fine. My arms feel a bit tingly and itchy and the roof of my mouth feels tight but I’m sitting here with a cup of tea trying to relax.

I have severe anxiety with OCD and low self esteem. Just recently I’ve been having unwanted, negative thoughts and that has really been affecting me that I feel sick and can’t stop crying. My stress is through the roof and I’m down everyday. I cannot seem to escape it.

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Fatima Mawele April 19, 2016 at 2:20 am

I started feeling faint and I had migraines. After some time my head and hands started vibrating and half of my stomach started feeling warm and cold at the same time. I usually feel something tight in my head and also my throat and half of my face pains alot. My ears feel blocked and pain and they ring all the time…. My neck feels too heavy and I fear that I may die.. Am scared I have meningitis or brain tumor but the doctor just put me on diet of vegetables, fruits, water and honey. But am scared I may die

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michelle April 25, 2016 at 11:32 pm

I have been suffering from anxiety for a while now it is horrible and im sick of it . its driving me insane i dont ever know if something is wrong with me are if im having a attack i get real weird feeling in my chest and like and electrical shock running through my body and even seems like im not even looking out of my eyes my chest hurts and arms back kneck and jaw so all heart attack symptoms thats why i never know im goin crazy here

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Natalie April 26, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Hey all! Im really happy I came across this forum. I actually find comfort in knowing there are people out there who feel just as I do. The last time I had a panic attack, was absolutely horrible. It started in the car while my fiancé was driving on the highway. I get car sick so the feeling of nausea was just terrible, then I noticed my left arm became kind of tingly/numb. I immediately informed my fiancé that my left arm was numb and i was afraid i may have a heart attack or was going to die. He began to laugh which frightened me even more but I kind of laughed with him while freaking out in my mind still. I began thinking, well he may think im crazy if i continue to show him how im really feeling. I then began thinking of my 2 young children and how i did not want to die and i became emotionally exhausted and just started to cry uncontrollably. Which then made my fiancé cry and he then expressed to me that he felt the same way as me. This made me feel better, I was like okay maybe I am okay after all. I confessed to him that I believe i may have been experiencing a panic attack. He told me not to cry and to stop worrying myself sick. After the panic attack i felt exhausted…physically, mentally, emotionally. This was 3 days ago and i still feel worried it may happen again. I would not wish panic attacks on anyone! It can control your whole life if you allow it to.

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Joshua May 9, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Please. I feel almost all of these symptoms. And i rather though some demon is attacking me. But almost all the symptoms is from here. But i went for blood test and all they said is i have ANEMIA.
I feel like dying any second. I am afraid of death, of living, unsteadiness, eye problem. everything .

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Joshua May 12, 2016 at 5:57 pm

PLease i’m having these same feelings and i am wondering how you list up the same feelings i had but in my language i dont know how to explain the symptoms to my family because it’s so strange to speak them. Like dying any second, afraid of death, fear of living, lightedness, headache and many others. PLease when i went for bloodtest they said i have anemia and how can i have almost all the synptoms of panic attack too???

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Natalie Borges May 18, 2016 at 2:47 pm

Hi Joshua. I know its hard but try not worry so much. I also have Anemia, this is where you may be experiencing the dizziness and shortness of breath. I too fear death and tend to think any kind of symptom I experience can only mean I’m dying. I’ve just learned to not fight the panic attack when I feel them coming on and trust me when you have experienced them for as long as I have, you begin to know and realize what they are. It’s just horrible. What I find that helps me is doing some meditating for relaxation, you can find some helpful videos on YouTube. Its all about taking control of your mind and learning to control your breathing. Hope this kind of helps (Hugs)

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