What is it like when you feel like you’re dying but you’re not actually dying? Well, you may have heart palpitations, your stomach in a knot or your head is about to explode. Those are all examples of what it feels like when a person says they are dying but aren’t. These are actually symptoms of anxiety. So, why would a person say they are dying when they are not?
It’s About Communication
It’s a way of expressing themselves. When things in their mind seem overwhelming, describing the symptoms of anxiety just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t capture the rawness of the emotion. The best way that person can think of to describe their emotions when they are unbearable is to go to the extreme. And what is more extreme than dying? Dying is the ultimate loss of life. After death, there exists nothing earthly for that being. So don’t hate on the next person who tells you they think they are dying. Open yourself up to compassion. The person telling you this is trying to communicate with you that they are in severe pain, whether emotionally, physically, or both.
It’s Not Stigmatizing
Some people think that a person labelling themselves with a diagnosis or prognosis without actually being diagnosed as such is stigmatizing that diagnosis. That’s not always true. If someone says they are feeling depressed but they are not diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, don’t discount that they are opening up themselves to you, putting their trust in you and being vulnerable in sharing this information with you for a tangible reason. They want help, even if that help is only to have an empathetic, non-judgmental listening ear. Sometimes they will need to tell you this same narrative more than once. If they have a mental illness it’s likely they have forgotten that they have told you this before, at least as is true in my case. Listen to the story as if it’s the first time you are hearing it. Please don’t become frustrated with the individual. And if you do, excuse yourself and walk away for the time being. Self-care is also important.
What This Feels Like
Moments ago, I felt like I was dying. My body did not have any of the traditional symptoms of anxiety: no sweaty palms, no rapid breathing, no trembling of my body. Everything looked normal from the outside. But inside, it felt like I was literally dying. My heart felt like it was crushed. The alarm bells in my head were ringing nonstop. It’s not something I could hear but it’s something I could feel in my mind and in my body. It’s hard to describe. I had either bravely or stupidly just put myself through six hours of a Helping Grieving Children Bereavement training with San Diego Youth Services where I volunteer. They are a great organization and they offer free trainings to their volunteers and staff. So I took the day off work, unpaid, to educate myself in the realm of mental health, my passion. Only, now I am paying for it.
How to Make the Dying Sensation End
I need to focus on something else to get my mind off of bereavement. It is a heavy topic by itself and compounded with the fact that I experienced losing my father to death at the age of three and a half, this makes the training experience all that more difficult. Unfortunately, I have scheduled to return to work this afternoon. All I want to do is go home and sit with Samuel, my spoiled and faithful Emotional Support Animal (ESA). But this is going to help me, isn’t it? Going to work will stave off the tears until I can enter my safe space at home later to cry.
So that’s what I would recommend as someone who has been there. If you feel like you are dying, get yourself to a safe place, quickly. Check the facts, am I really dying? Find ways to prove that you are still alive and not actually dying. Do some breathing exercises. Call your therapist to schedule an appointment. Process the moment. Call someone safe to check in with. Text if you don’t feel comfortable calling. Just don’t do nothing. Don’t sit with those overwhelming feelings. Tell yourself that the feelings will eventually go away, even if it feels like they will last forever. Call the crisis line! In the U.S. that number is 800-273-8255. There is always someone at the other end of that line 24/7 to help you. Eventually, you will feel better and then you can begin to process the experience.
After the Experience
It’s now later in the day and I no longer feel like I am dying. I also felt earlier that I was going to explode somehow. It turns out that work was a good distraction. And a sandwich grilled on an iron skillet with lots of salted butter and extra sharp cheddar cheese in between the bread slices is a great way to reward me for having made it through a difficult day. The thing to do is having a list of healthy distraction techniques. These can be anything from sniffing lavender oil to putting your hand in a bowl of dry rice. It’s nice to have a mental list of these things but it’s nicer still to have a list written down either on paper or in your phone which you can easily refer to in times of distress. All I wanted to do was go home and be with my therapy dog, which is what I am doing now. I can’t wait to see my therapist tomorrow. I’m saving my tears for my time with him. It feels better and safer to cry in the presence of my therapist rather than alone.
Processing the Experience
If you say you feel like you are dying, it’s likely that something happened which triggered you to feel this way. At some point when you are ready after that feeling fades, it is going to be time to process the experience. I have discovered in my case that a lot of anger lies behind my being in a state of overwhelm. And under that anger lies sadness and hurt. I’m angry that my dad died. I’m angry that it wasn’t okay to talk about feelings when I was little and that no one helped me to grieve properly. I’m angry that because of these things, I was an angry teenager and the list goes on. But the moments following the bereavement training also became overwhelming because of the immense pain which was brought up through this experience.
Why Having a Therapist is Important
Emotional pain is never easy to bear and that is why we seek out therapists so that we can have someone bear witness to our lives, our experience, our struggles. When you feel like you are no longer alone, that can be such a relief. You don’t have to bear the pain and the hurt all by yourself. There are people who are professionally trained to help you with this. You have to make helping yourself a priority, or you will not survive this life. At least, I wouldn’t want to survive this life without my therapist. I choose to keep him in my life. I choose to see him twice a week in order to stay sane and in order not to suffer so much. I choose to use my coping skills. I choose life and I hope you do too.