When someone starts to panic they can misinterpret the strong physical signs of anxiety as evidence that something terrible really is happening.

It’s common to think that a fast-beating heart is the sign of a heart attack starting, for example. Or someone who is feeling anxious that they might faint in public can misinterpret the symptoms of anxiety (feeling dizzy or wobbly) as proof that they are about to faint. Other people fear they are losing control or might do something ‘crazy’ and embarrass themselves in public.

This is known as ‘catastrophic misinterpretation’.

Finding ways to challenge catastrophic misinterpretations can help you to manage your panic attacks or stop them from happening.

Symptom of anxietyCommon misinterpretationsChallenge misinterpretation
Fast beating heart/palpitationsI am having a heart attackA fast-beating heart is a symptom of anxiety. It’s part of the threat response – the body’s way of responding to danger by getting ready to fight or flight. Ask yourself ‘Did I have a heart attack the last time I had a panic attack? No. Then why should I be having one this time?’’
Dizziness and feeling wobblyI am going to faint or collapseFeeling dizzy and light-headed are symptoms of anxiety and not a sign that you are about to faint. You’re actually less likely to faint during a panic attack than at any other time. Fainting is caused by a drop in blood pressure. During a panic attack the heart beats faster and our blood pressure rises.
Breathing too quicklyI am going to stop breathingBreathing too quickly changes the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood resulting in too much oxygen rather than too little.
Racing thoughtsI am losing my mind or going to lose controlAsk yourself ‘Did I lose control last time I had a panic attack? Why should I this time?’ Feeling disconnected or confused are common experiences when having a panic attack
Feeling detached from reality/unable to concentrate or focusI am going ‘crazy’Remind yourself that these are common symptoms of a panic attack.
Numbness or tingling
I am having a strokeRemind yourself that these symptoms are the result of over breathing and taking in too much oxygen.
Need to go to the toiletI am going to wet myself and embarrass myself in publicAsk yourself ‘If I did not wet myself during my last panic attack why should it happen this time?’ and ‘What would a friend say about this fear?’
Blurred visionI am going blindTell yourself that blurred vision during a panic attack is caused by rapid breathing and less oxygen in the blood. It is not a sign there is a problem with your sight.
Feeling nauseousI am going to be sickIt’s common to feel nauseous during a panic attack but not to be sick. Think of how many times you have felt nauseous but not been sick. Why would it be different this time?