By Carolyn L. Todd
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or panic attacks, you may be familiar with symptoms like a tightening in your chest or throat, worries you can’t control, and an overall restlessness. But when you suddenly experience something like shortness of breath or visual disturbances, your mental health probably isn’t the first thing you’d think to blame.
But severe anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorder can actually cause some scary physical symptoms, which is something Meghan Trainor recently discussed on The Dan Wootton Interviewpodcast last week.
In her early 20s, Trainor hit pause on her career to undergo surgery for vocal hemorrhaging—only for it to return in 2016, requiring a second surgery. And with the recurrence came another serious health issue: severe anxiety and depression, she explained.
“I fell into a crazy, deep hole of depression and anxiety and [had] never experienced that before, so I was rattled,” Trainor said on the podcast. But it wasn’t until she ended up in the emergency room that Trainor figured out what was going on. “I went to the emergency room one night, because I was like, ‘I think I’m allergic to what I ate, my throat is closing and I’m having trouble breathing,’” she told Wootton. “They told me, ‘This is a full-blown panic attack.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ They were like, ‘This is your brain tricking you, telling you that your throat [is closing].’”
In addition to these debilitating panic attacks, Trainor describes experiencing another terrifying phenomenon at the height of her anxiety. “I remember standing in CVS with my friend in line and I saw the whole back row behind her move, when she didn’t,” recalled Trainor, who believed she was having a hallucination. “Moments like that I had, dissociation with your body, and you think you’re […] seeing things.” Another time, Trainor said, “I was sitting in my bathroom and the lights turned yellow.”
In those moments, she says, “you’re terrified, you feel alone. You feel like there’s something wrong with you and you’re embarrassed to talk about it.”
Panic attacks are characterized by both intense physical symptoms and sudden feelings of anxiety or fear.
It’s not unusual for the physiological symptoms (such as shortness of breath and heart palpitations) to make sufferers feel like they are dying. “People having panic attacks can feel like they’re having heart attacks,” Martin Antony, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, tells SELF.
“They can have dizziness, faintness, breathlessness—a lot of the same things we might associate with heart attack or stroke,” he explains. “So that’s not unusual to think you’re having some sort of physical catastrophe, or that you’re going to die.”
Actual hallucinations aren’t a common symptom of anxiety. But it’s not that unusual for people to feel like they’re hallucinating during a panic attack.
Real hallucinatory episodes, in which a person perceives sounds, images, or sometimes sensations that aren’t there, are not typical symptoms of panic attacks or anxiety disorders, according to Antony. If that is happening, he says, it’s more likely to be a symptom of a disorder like schizophrenia.
But a panic attack can still make you think you’re hallucinating. “As a matter of fact, one of the symptoms of a panic attack is feeling like you’re ‘losing your mind’ or ‘going crazy,’” New York City-based psychologist Michael Brustein, Psy.D., tells SELF. “Because of all the physical reactions they’re having, such as increased breathing, sweating, heart beating faster, feeling faint—people might interpret [what’s going on] around them as though they’re having a hallucination.”
It may sound a little wild, but it actually makes sense. For instance, during a panic attack, you might become extra alert and vigilant as well as focused on specific images in your visual field because your body and mind are in such an aroused, anxious state, Brustein explains. “Someone in the midst of their panic attack might attribute a shadow in their peripheral vision or a flickering light to ‘I’m seeing things,’” he says. “However, that experience is not technically a hallucination.”
On top of that, you might feel depersonalization and detachment (being disconnected or dissociated from your body or reality) during a panic attack, which can contribute to the belief that you’re having a hallucination when you aren’t. “One of the symptoms of panic attacks can be feeling unreal or detached,” Antony says. “People feel like their body isn’t theirs. It’s not a delusional belief, it’s a real sensation that they get.”
Together, these symptoms can produce an experience that may seem like a hallucination to the person at the time, but wouldn’t necessarily be diagnosed as such. “Blurred vision, feelings of unreality (a general sense that things are unreal or they look kind of strange), and feelings of depersonalization are common symptoms that might be misinterpreted as hallucinations,” Antony explains.
Even if your panic attacks don’t make you feel like you’re having a heart attack or hallucinating, they deserve the attention of a mental health professional.
A therapist can help you figure out what’s going on (and potentially diagnose you with a clinical anxiety disorder, if that’s the case) and work on a treatment plan to help reduce and manage your anxiety. This could include learning grounding techniques for getting through panic attacks when they do happen, so that they feel less terrifying in the moment. In addition to therapy, some people may benefit from medication to help manage their anxiety.
Trainor credits a combination of therapy, consistent exercise, and good old self-care with helping her get a handle on her anxiety over the course of a few months. “I took time off, I took time for me,” she said. “I’m still in therapy, I see my therapist like once a week.”
And although Trainor mostly has her anxiety in check today, she remembers the feelings of hopelessness before getting help—and wants people to remember that things do get better. “The hardest part is when you’re in the middle of it and truly believe there is no way this will ever end—‘I’m going to be stuck like this forever,’” she said. “And I believed that, until I slowed down with my anxiety and it stopped happening 24 hours a day.”