Anxiety and panic cause a lot of frightening symptoms. Some of those symptoms cause people to fear that it's not anxiety at all – that it’s something more serious that may require medical attention. It's not uncommon during a panic attack to experience feeling faint, and if they get too severe it may even lead to severe health fears.
Can panic attacks cause fainting? And why does this occur? We explore these questions in this article.
The Effects of Panic
The unfortunate reality is that only a doctor can actually diagnose the cause of your fainting, and diagnosing yourself online is risky. Talk to your doctor, but note that anxiety and panic absolutely are a common cause of feeling faint.
It is very, very rare for panic attacks to cause true fainting. Panic attack fainting does occur, and there are stories of it happening to some people that experience a truly severe panic attack, but the likelihood is very slim. If you are truly fainting and blacking out, make sure you talk to a doctor.
Again, panic attacks can cause fainting. Extreme stress has been known to cause fainting in some people. Panic attacks caused by phobias absolutely can cause fainting, though these are slightly different than traditional panic attacks that affect those with panic disorder. There are issues that can lead to fainting. It's just very rare for those that have panic attacks to reach that point.
What Causes Fainting – or Feelings of Faint
With that in mind, let's discuss many of the issues that can lead to either fainting or more realistically, feeling you're going to faint. While fainting may be rare, feeling like you're about to faint is incredibly common. In fact, lightheadedness, dizziness, and weakness (all what you feel when you're about to faint) are extremely common symptoms of panic attacks, so much so that those that don't know they're having a panic attack may think that they're in the process of a heart attack, or worse, feeling as though fainting is imminent. What causes this feeling can be complicated, but the most common causes are:
- Hyperventilation The most common reason for feelings of faint is hyperventilation, and although hyperventilation can cause fainting, it generally doesn't do it when you have anxiety. Hyperventilation comes from breathing too quickly or too inefficiently and breathing out too much carbon dioxide. Hyperventilation constricts blood vessels, including those to your brain, which in turn causes you to feel light headed, weaker, and more. This is the number one reason that people feel faint during anxiety attacks.
- Adrenaline Adrenaline itself doesn't necessarily create lightheadedness and fainting, but it does increase the heart rate, cause tunnel vision, and can make the body feel like it's on air. Adrenaline is responsible for anxiety itself, and some of the symptoms of adrenaline rushes combined with severe fear can make it feel like you're about to pass out.
- Brain Shutdown Anxiety and panic overwhelm the brain. During a panic attack, some parts of your brain actually shut down (or slow), while others go into full coping mode. It's possible that during this process, your mind isn't working properly, which could in theory lead to symptoms that mimic what precedes fainting.
- Sensitivity It's also important to note that symptom of panic attacks is an increased sensitivity to physical sensations. Those with panic disorder have a tendency to feel symptoms more strongly than those without panic disorder. For example, when someone without anxiety stands up too fast and gets light headed they shrug it off and it goes away. When someone with anxiety gets the same lightheadedness, the feeling is amplified, and often triggers further anxiety which triggers further panic.
These are the reasons that it often feels like you're about to faint during a panic attack, and in rare cases these are the issues that could actually lead to faint. But in general, they simply cause severe physical symptoms that mimic near-fainting, which is why so many people worry about whether or not they are going to faint in the future.
How to Stop the Fainting
Once a panic attack has started, it does become much harder to control. The best thing you can do is make sure that you're breathing correctly to reduce the symptoms of hyperventilation. Remember, hyperventilation is too little CO2, not too little oxygen as it sometimes feels, so fight the urge to take fast deep breaths. At the same time, don't hold your breath as this can lead to a rapid change in blood pressure that may contribute to further symptoms. Instead, slow down your breathing dramatically:
- Breathe in for 5 seconds.
- Hold for 2 or 3 seconds.
- Breathe out for 7 seconds.
Slowing down your breathing ensures that you get both enough oxygen and enough carbon dioxide. It won't stop all of the symptoms of hyperventilation – once they've started they don't clear right away – but it will give you an opportunity to at least cut back on some of those symptoms so that they do not get worse.
You'll also want to take steps towards decreasing the severity and frequency of your anxiety attacks, since panic attack fainting is easier to prevent than it is to stop once it's started.
See our articles on how to deal and cope with anxiety, alongside CBT techniques on stopping panic attacks before they start.
Fainting can happen with anxiety, though it is a bit rarer with panic attacks. Typically, those that feel faint or experience faint during panic attacks do so as the result of hyperventilation, rapid adrenaline, or vasovagal syncope. Controlled breathing will help any hyperventilation issues, while anxiety reduction will prevent this feeling from recurring.