This Is What A Panic Attack Feels Like

When people talk about panic attacks, they usually mention things like a racing heart and sweaty hands, but for me it’s a whole lot more than that. I’ve been experiencing panic attacks since I was a kid and I’ve been diagnosed with a panic disorder. This is what those attacks are really like for me.

  1. It’s hard to breathe. Although my panic attacks sometimes behave in different ways, they usually include restricted airflow. I might wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I can’t breathe. Panic then really sets in as I fear that there’s something wrong with my lungs, even though I know my anxiety is out of control.
  2. I feel out of it. Sometimes in the middle of a panic attack, things just seem… off. I feel like I’m out of it, almost like I might black out. Other times, it feels like everything looks a little different from usual. I guess that’s as a result of adrenaline going crazy in my body.
  3. It’s hard to speak. Trying to have a conversation in the middle of a panic attack is a total nightmare. My breathing is fast, my voice is shaking, and my heart is roaring in my ears as though I’ve just run a race. Not fun. What’s worse is when someone says I look pale or I’m acting weird. Gee, thanks. That’s what anxiety sufferers don’t need to hear.
  4. My thoughts are all over the place. For me, panic attacks are never just physical. There’s always a mental aspect to them, usually in the form of intense fears that decide to jump out at me. What if I die? What if I faint? What if, what if, what if? It’s hard to slow down my thoughts, but I’ve found that if I can do that, then my body usually follows suit and calms down too.
  5. I feel hot… and cold. It’s weird but panic attacks can sometimes feel like the fever and chills in one nasty package. So, because my heart’s racing and more blood’s pumping through my body, I might feel hot. Then I’ll feel cold to the point that my teeth chatter!
  6. My fingers tingle. This is a symptom that freaked me out the first time I experienced it, but now I’m used to it. I feel like my hands go tingly and sometimes even give me that pins-and-needles sensation.
  7. My hands shake. Because of all the adrenaline in my body, it’s common for my hands to shake a lot. It’s embarrassing when I’m in public because it’s pretty noticeable, so I try to hide my hands. Anxiety makes dating hard.
  8. I want to throw up. My body’s going crazy so it’s only natural that that can make me want to throw up. It’s like being on a rollercoaster. I never actually do throw up but I do get nauseous, and that can last me for hours after a panic attack.
  9. I feel the urge to run. I’ve had a few episodes where a panic attack has struck and I’ve had the insane urge to run. I’ve stormed out of shopping malls, church services, and parties because I just couldn’t deal. The thing about anxiety is that it takes over and it grabs all your attention, so other noise and sights feel like too much to handle. There’s this mad desire to find a quiet place and press the reset button. I’ve even had a panic attack on a first date!
  10. I fear losing control. I was pleased to find that other people who suffer from panic attacks experience this because I worried that I was losing my mind (which was just making me more anxious). This fear of losing control strikes during a panic attack. I fear that my body’s doing so much that it’s going to fly off the handle. It makes sense that I’d feel this because I can’t control my heart rate or stop my hands from shaking, and that fear tends to snowball. I’ve had enough panic attacks to know I won’t lose control, but it’s still not a nice feeling.
  11. I feel totally wrecked. After an intense panic attack, I feel wiped out like I’ve run a marathon and babysat a group of rowdy kids all on the same day. Sometimes the panic attack only lasts about 10 minutes, but in that short amount of time so much has happened. It’s really hard to explain to people how a panic attack can tire you out, and I hate it when people say “calm down.” That’s not going to help!
Giulia Simolo is a writer from Johannesburg, South Africa with a degree in English Language and Literature. She has been working as a journalist for more than a decade, writing for sites including AskMen, Native Interiors, and Live Eco. You can find out more about her on Facebook and LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter @GiuliaSimolo.