What To Do If Your Panic Attacks Lead To Suicidal Thoughts, According To Experts

Ashley Batz/Bustle

For many, panic attacks can be a totally crippling experience. And although they may not be talked about often, they're not uncommon. Panic attacks are a sign of panic disorder, which is a common anxiety disorder that affects 2.4 million adults in the country, according to WebMD. But still, what goes on when someone experiences them is rarely talked about.

Warning: This article contains information about suicide, which some may find triggering.

Gisele Bündchen opened up about her experience with panic attacks and suicidal thoughts in an interview with People. In her new memoir, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life, she shares that she not only has suffered from panic attacks, but that the attacks were so severe that they led to suicidal thoughts.

“I actually had the feeling of, ‘If I just jump off my balcony, this is going to end, and I never have to worry about this feeling of my world closing in'," she told People. It's a horrible thing to experience, but such an important topic to be opening up about.

"A panic attack is a sudden urge of fear and distress that takes over and makes you feel loss of control and intense fear," psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee tells Bustle. Though panic attacks don't always lead to suicidal thoughts, they can make you feel like you're trapped or going to die.

"When someone has a panic attack they are often fearful they are going to die, because their heart is racing and they’re having trouble breathing," Dr. Carole Lieberman, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist, tells Bustle. "They don’t usually have suicidal thoughts during the panic attack. But, in between panic attacks they can feel hopeless that they will ever be able to find a cure."

In some cases, feeling like you're going to die during a panic attack can lead to suicidal thoughts, either during or between attacks. "The fear of dying during a panic attack is an independent risk factor for subsequent suicide attempts among individuals with depressive disorders, which may help predict the acute state which may prompt suicide," neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Bustle. "When people feel trapped, it contorts and distorts reality, and in that moment, suicide may feel like a realistic or viable option."

Panic attacks are nearly always incredibly difficult to experience but if they bring on suicidal thoughts, as they did for Bündchen, that can add another dimension of trauma. The first thing to do, if you haven't gotten help for your panic attacks, is to see an expert, especially if you're having suicidal thoughts. "You need to get into psychotherapy sooner rather than later in order to get to the root of the problem," Dr. Lieberman says.

Try Panic Attack De-Escalation Methods

On the most basic level, being able to de-escalate your panic attack can help quell both the attack and the thoughts. There are different coping mechanisms out there, but one method that experts suggest is plunging your face in ice water.

"Research in physiology suggests that the human heart rate slows down 10 to 25 percent when our face comes into contact with ice cold water," says Dr. Forshee. "This is affective during a panic attack because when we are experiencing panic our body physiologically becomes aroused (increased heart rate is one of the symptoms of physiological arousal)." Dr. Forshee also suggests other methods to distract your body such as using a stress ball or trying to take deep breaths that fill your diaphragm.

To try to silence your mind, Dr. Hafeez suggests mindfulness training. "Being at peace with feelings, let them sit and swirl, till they settle down," Dr. Hafeez says. "As part of human nature, the instinct is to fight negative or uncomfortable emotions. It is counterproductive. Once your mind processes an emotion, good or bad, it learns how to deal with it. Panic attacks that stem from the parasympathetic system, and indicate a fight or flight response, are quelled when that adrenaline stops pumping."

Once you have a handle trying to manage the attack itself, it's important to manage the suicidal thoughts.

Talk To Your Doctor About The Suicidal Thoughts

Firstly, if suicidal thoughts are something you struggle with generally, there are suicide prevention resources that can make a huge difference. "Suicide hotlines are available 24/7, psychiatric emergency rooms are available, and friends and family are here to help," Dr. Bradley Gaynes, professor and associate chair of research training and education in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Bustle.

While panic attacks do not always bring on suicidal thoughts, the intensity of them can do so. And a large 2013 study found that people who suffer from anxiety are more likely to have suicidal thoughts generally. So suicidal ideations and anxiety are definitely linked, whether you experience the suicidal thoughts during the panic attack itself or later on. If this is the case for you, it's crucial to speak to a doctor.

"Cognitive behavioral techniques, mindfulness training, guided imagery, positive, self-soothing talk, are the best treatments but often best guided by a licensed psychologist or trained therapist," Dr. Hafeez says. "Medication is also a critical component with panic attacks, and suicide is a serious epidemic, and those looking to replace medication with only therapy may be putting themselves at a great disadvantage and possibly hurt progress."

Panic attacks can be so brutally overwhelming that a part of your brain may tell you suicide is the only option. If you have experienced this or any other suicidal ideations, contact an expert or a suicide hotline to find resources available near you.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.