This Is What A Panic Attack Feels Like

Flickr / Michael Gil
Flickr / Michael Gil

You never see them coming. It’s not like you wake up one day and you’re like, jeez, I’m not feeling so hot today, I think there might be a panic attack in the works. It’s not like that at all. And sure, you can get one whenever, I mean there’s no right time for a panic attack. But a lot of the time they like to strike when you’re feeling terrific, when everything’s going right in life, when you wake up in the morning and open the window and the sun is shining, when you’re walking down the street and you’re light on your feet and everything’s just A-OK.

And then, I don’t know how to describe it exactly, it’s like a tiny nuclear bomb goes off in some corner of your head. In fact, it’s so small you almost can’t even perceive that the bomb’s been detonated. Think of like a microscopic A-bomb going boom, you feel it just a little, you think. What was that?

If it’s your first panic attack, you don’t know what’s happening. Everything’s mostly OK, but that mostly OK is rapidly starting to get eclipsed by something else. It’s that bomb, it already exploded, yeah, and you’re still standing, but the shock waves are starting to spread throughout your entire body. All of the sudden you’re just slightly out of breath. Maybe there’s a barely perceptible buzzing sensation that you can only sort of make out through your peripheral vision. It’s nothing serious, at least, it doesn’t feel serious, not yet.

Or maybe this isn’t your first time around, maybe you’re all too familiar with señor panic attack’s vise-like iron hug of death. It’s really not fair, because the more experience you have navigating life under the shadow of an imminent panic attack, the more sensitive you become, highly attuned to even the slightest hint of another looming episode.

If only the accumulated knowledge of having suffered through several panic attacks made the process of going through them any less traumatic. But knowing what it feels like doesn’t help you to cope. Unfortunately the collected experience of each panic attack serves only to underscore how helpless you are, how quickly your body succumbs to what just a second before only felt like a shortness of breath.

You stop what you’re doing to try and slow down, maybe take a few deep inhales. But the more you breathe in and out, the tighter your chest feels, the less oxygen seems to be making it to the inside of your body. The part of your brain trying to keep a rational hold on the situation screams out, “It’s just a panic attack. It’s going to pass. You just have to try and stay calm, concentrate on your breathing.”

But your natural response to feeling like you’re beginning to suffocate is to freak the f out, big time, regardless of what your mind is telling you, the perfectly logical steps you should be executing in reaction to nothing but a biological mental hiccup. Every time you open up your mouth to suck in as much air as possible, it feels like less and less is making its way in.

And then your heart starts to get in on the action. Maybe you could have dealt with the shortness of breath, but you’ll never get the chance to find out, because as soon as your body tricks your brain into thinking that the oxygen supply is about to run out, your heart’s next move is to start beating as furiously as possible.

It’s not even like you’re trying to pay attention to it at this point, but you can’t ignore the deep throbbing that’s echoing out from your now-empty chest, reverberating through your ears, drowning out almost completely the sounds of the outside world.

Yes, it’s going to get worse, and then it’s going to get better, that’s the wave-like nature of the panic attack. But even though they inevitably run their course, the worst part of the experience is that moment right before the attack reaches climax. At this point you’re huddled into a corner, maybe stopped to squat on the curb if you happen to be walking on the street. Even though your body has fully surrendered its most basic functions, at least your mind is still there. And what I mean by that is, you’re either telling yourself that it’s going to be over, or you’re busy trying to fight your way through.

But even though you’re doing your best to reassure yourself you’ll make it to the other side, the absolute worst part of every panic attack is that moment when a thought pops into your head: this is it. I’m not going make it. I know that I’ve been through this countless times, but this feeling, this is what it feels like right before you die.

And it’s not even like you get to make any sort of peace with the idea of approaching doom. It’s like your mind gets a brief taste of what it’s going to feel like to have your life snuffed from existence, but you don’t get to experience anything like acceptance. There’s no warm embrace that comes along with giving up of the fight, of letting go. No, you skim the edge of what it means to come face-to-face with your mortality, like freebasing fear, a direct hit of sheer terror straight to your very consciousness.

And then your lungs open up just a little bit. Then the ringing in your ears makes way for the background sounds of the outside world. Your heart settles down and you walk away from the experience physically unscathed. But inside, the brutality of the panic attack has left its mark.

How do you go back to just living a regular life? Sure, you can’t let yourself constantly worry about the possibility of another panic attack, that’s no way to live. And like I said before, even if you feel one coming on, there’s little you can do in the way of prevention, or early detection. But even that’s a weird concept to wrap your head around, because after a few dozen panic attacks, after you’ve gotten familiar with that mini bomb going off in your head, it’s really more of a chicken-and-egg question: were you really able to detect the slight disturbance that set into motion your inevitable collapse into fetal position?

Or was your original thought about the possibility of a panic attack the very seed that began the steady progression of a mental state set in neutral to one shifted abruptly into high gear? Should you really try to go about your day pushing aside the thoughts of physical collapse? Is that even possible? I don’t know if there’s an answer. It’s not like a panic attack happens every day, there’s no schedule. You just have to hope today isn’t one of those days. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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