Can I suffocate to death from an anxiety attack?

by | Apr 19, 2021

Can I suffocate to death from an anxiety attack?

by | Apr 19, 2021

The greatest fear that a person with uncontrolled anxiety can feel is that of dying. Some people think that their heart will stop because of how fast it beats, while others imagine that they may suffocate, as they feel very short of breath. The good news is that a fast heartbeat and apparent shortness of breath are just symptoms of severe anxiety and can only cause you unpleasant sensations.

Since knowledge is power, we will tell you what happens in your body when anxiety levels are very high and, therefore, feel afraid that you might die. You will understand why you have these thoughts and imagine that you are going to die. Keep in mind that they are just that: unfounded thoughts and imaginings due to the unappealing symptoms of anxiety.

Why does a panic attack occur?

When you handle a lot of stress and/or anxiety, the defense mechanisms of the nervous system are activated, because you feel that you are in a dangerous situation. When there is danger, the physiological mechanisms are triggered and logically you begin to have various unpleasant sensations of alert, due to the fight-or-flight state in which your body is in.

The problem is when your anxiety gets out of control due to a threat that is not real, but rather is in your mind. It is what we know as irrational fears, without apparent explanation, or as the remembrance of traumatic events (in the past) that continue to represent a threat to you in your mind. In other words, the fear is disproportionate to the threat, making you more aware of the symptoms.

If the danger were real, like when a wolf stalks you in a forest, the same mechanism would be unleashed, you would feel the same but not consciously since you would be too busy running or defending yourself from the animal’s attack. In this case, fear and action are proportionate to the threat that is presented. In this real danger situation, your heart would beat just as fast, your breathing would accelerate, your body would tremble, and your mouth would dry up, but for you this would be the least of your problems since you would not be aware of it.

When people feel these symptoms for the first time, due to unreal dangers, the impact is so big that we become deeply fearful of our own body and its natural reactions. Panic attacks may become repetitive and a spiral from fear to fear may begin to unfold, which is likely to end in an anxiety disorder.


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The lack of air is distressing

A person with uncontrolled anxiety cannot be blamed for feeling that shortness of breath can end in sudden death. Breathing is a vital activity of the human body and feeling that something prevents us from carrying it out normally is, to say the least, disconcerting. If this is coupled with a very high heart rate and chest pain, it is easy to mistake it for a heart attack as well.

Dying from suffocation is a situation that no one wants to experience. This is one of the reasons why people with panic attacks go to hospital emergency rooms every time they have a panic attack.

When doctors do not find physical causes and send the patient home, clarifying or not that it was an anxious episode, the person begins to imagine that they are going crazy; only that could explain the reason for so much discomfort. These thoughts can lead to depression. Therefore, it is important to know what is happening and to attend therapy, to avoid other mental conditions.

Hyperventilation causes symptoms

You must understand that hyperventilation contributes to the unpleasant sensations that you experience. Hyperventilation is very fast and shallow breathing or breathing too deeply. This results in an imbalance of two essential gases involved in respiration: O2 (oxygen) and CO2 (carbon dioxide).

When we inhale, we allow oxygen-filled air to enter our lungs. Later, the blood transports this O2 to the heart and from there it is distributed throughout the body. This allows oxygen to transform nutrients into energy, and after its metabolism it generates CO2 as one of the final waste products. The blood carries it to the lungs and from there it leaves our body through exhalation. The cycle repeats over and over again.

When we breathe more oxygen than we need, that is, when we hyperventilate, the balance between O2 and CO2 ceases to occur; the first increases, and the second decreases in the blood. This results in the brain detecting the drop in CO2 and activating mechanisms to return to equilibrium. To do this, the brain must decrease the frequency of respiration or the impulse to breathe.

When the person feels shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, they tend to panic and breathe more (hyperventilate), so the body begins to make it more difficult to breathe. The brain wants you to breathe less so CO2 levels increase.

The reduction of CO2 in the blood also causes other symptoms because it becomes alkaline, causing cramps, dizziness, muscle weakness, blurred vision, palpitations, and tremors, among others.

For all these reasons, it is recommended to apply controlled breathing techniques to help us normalize it and begin to restore the balance of both gases. Slow, controlled breathing, relaxation, and sometimes distractions are helpful when panic attacks occur.

No one can die from hyperventilation caused by anxiety; there is no case recorded that validates that idea. However, when hyperventilation is a consequence of physical respiratory or cardiac pathologies, there can be significant risks. Therefore, it is essential to find the origin of hyperventilation. 

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