Why does it feel like I’m drowning during a panic attack?
People suffering from anxiety or a panic attack will often tell me that they feel a crushing feeling in their chest and that they are aware of breathing really fast and shallow. They report feeling foggy-headed, confused and agitated. They’ll also ask me “Why does it feel like I am drowning during a panic attack?”
Over-breathing causes a state of oxygen deficiency and a sensation of drowning or suffocating
When you have anxiety or a panic attack what typically happens is you over-breathe. Most likely you’re rapidly gulping in that air through your mouth, rather than your nose.
You’re breathing in a lot of oxygen and panting out carbon dioxide really fast. This upsets the delicate balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide in your system.
Over-breathing creates oxygen deficiency, which makes you feel like you are drowning, or suffocating.
You actually need carbon dioxide in your blood for this breathing thing to work
Imagine you rocked up to the servo to get a new gas bottle for your BBQ. But they said that you could only get a full one if you had an empty one to exchange it for. That’s what’s going on in your blood.
There needs to be a carbon dioxide molecule in your blood ready to swap out for the incoming oxygen molecule. But when we over-breathe, we pant out too much carbon dioxide.
So you might be breathing in heaps of oxygen but you are unable to get enough into your bloodstream because you’ve already panted out too much carbon dioxide. So you feel like you are short of air.
We call this ‘air hunger’ and it can feel like you are drowning, or suffocating.
This drowning sensation is kind of a design flaw in the human body
When you are stressed, anxious or having a panic attack – whether it’s about something right there in front of you, or you’re just thinking about it – your nervous system takes you into flight or fight mode (the sympathetic nervous system).
This state is designed to get you away from danger really quickly either by fleeing or by fighting. In order to do either of those things, your muscles need to be firing on all cylinders. Which means they need fuel. So that means you need lots of oxygen (your breathing rate increases) and a faster delivery of that oxygen to the muscles (increased heart rate).
That increased breathing rate is what you have evolved to do. That drowning feeling, however, is sort of a ‘design flaw’.
So how do we feel calmer again?
It’s all about the exhale …
Focus on long slow exhales. This increases the amount of carbon dioxide in your system (so you’ll be able to absorb more oxygen).
Take in less air (preferably through your nose).
Easier said than done when you’re in the middle of a panic attack, right? So first, let’s calm the farm, and take in your surroundings
Let’s use your senses to bring you back to the present moment.
Take your time and notice:
5 colours you can see around you. Don’t go for the obvious ones. What about the unusual ones? Chartreuse green? The colour of my last sunburn, pink?
4 objects you can touch. Go up and touch them and describe the sensation you feel under your hand as if to someone who had never felt them before. E.g. velvety cat nose (thank you Nala).
3 sounds that you can hear. (I hope my neighbours can’t hear my Cello playing – it sounds like a cow dying – but hey we are all beginners at something!)
2 smells you notice in your environment. (Hopefully nice ones)
1 thing you can taste in your mouth.
Here’s a helpful graphic that you can download to your phone to keep to hand when an emergency strikes.
Tip 1 – Don’t rush.
Tip 2 – Sometimes it’s helpful to get another person to ask you to notice those questions. So grab your partner/friend/friendly colleague to help you with this.
Two breathing techniques that can help when you feel like you are drowning during a panic attack
1. (Pretend to) Breathe out through a straw
This is going to force you to do long slow exhales through that little gap in your lips (or ‘embouchure’ if you’re a flute player). This will increase the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood and get your oxygen exchange back to normal again.
2. Alternate Nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing or “Nadi Shodhana” is a yogic breathing technique that helps you slow down your breathing. It also forces you to use only your nostrils (instead of mouth breathing) and again will slow down your breathing rate.
Same as the technique above. This will increase the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood and get your oxygen exchange back to normal again. Leaving you feeling calmer and able to breathe better.
Want more breathing techniques/tips?
1. Free videos on my Resources page
I’ve got more breathing techniques on my Resources page (free)
2. Online Course “Finding Calm in 7 Days”
I’ve got an online course called “Finding Calm in 7 Days” which has 7 breathing techniques and 7 moving/grounding techniques that synchronize breath with movement. It only costs $29 at the time of writing this blog, and you get to keep your access for as long as you like (no end date – no rush).
If you would like to talk to Sarah about she may be able to help you manage your panic attack symptoms, book your FREE 15-min discovery phone call here
See you soon. Stay safe and healthy.