Do you know what a panic attack feels like? If you’re lucky enough to be able to answer “no” to that question, let me walk you through what it feels like for me — someone who has dealt with them since she was 12 years old.
Your heart starts doing funny, alarming things. It speeds up, or skips beats, or feels like it’s doing flip-flops. It might pound so hard and so fast that you’re convinced it’s either going to explode or just short out and stop.
Your ability to breathe normally is suddenly gone. You wonder if you’re having a pulmonary embolism or a heart attack. You think maybe the air from the room has been sucked out, or a poisonous gas leak is suffocating you. The shortness of breath and the struggle for air can make you lightheaded and dizzy, and you feel absolutely certain that you aren’t getting the precious oxygen you need to survive.
There are odd sensations too. Things that feel “off” and so strange that you freak out even more. You might feel like you’re literally going crazy. Your thoughts become unfocused and racing. Your hands and feet might tingle. You might feel high or hazy or paranoid — like you’re on the worst magic mushroom trip of your life.
It’s like your soul or maybe your mind is separating from your body. Whatever you believe is the essence of “you” is starting to check out of reality, to float up and above you. You literally feel like you’re losing your mind.
There is pain sometimes, too. Pain in your head, or maybe in your chest. My most recent and worst series of panic attacks, which landed me in the hospital multiple times right before COVID-19 hit, caused a cold burning sensation to radiate from the center of my chest, out my arms, and up my neck and back. It was something new added to my menu of symptoms, something I’d never felt before in my 20 years of panic disorder.
Because that’s the thing. The symptoms of a panic attack can change and evolve in new and terrifying ways. Once you’ve taught your body how to recognize your panic attack and breathe through it until you feel better — that’s when those symptoms can start to change.
Anxiety is a beast. It’s a monster. And a shape-shifting monster at that. When you finally get control of it, when you finally feel like you have the right weapons and can defeat it, it changes. And suddenly the tools you have worked so hard to collect do nothing at all for it.
On and on the vicious cycle goes.
We Didn’t Choose This — In Fact, We Might Have Inherited It
According to the Fear and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Florida:
- About 1.7% of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54 suffers from panic disorder in a given year. That’s roughly 2.4 Americans altogether.
- Women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorder (lucky us!).
- The risk for developing panic disorder appears to be inherited.
There’s no question that everyone experiences a panic attack in their own unique way. My symptoms may not look anything like someone else’s. That’s because it’s a weird and shape-shifty mental illness, as previously mentioned. It’s almost as if it has a mind of its own.
Having a panic attack is a life-changing event. And I can confidently say it’s one of the worst, most frightening feelings a person can have while not being physically ill or injured. It’s incredibly common for people with panic disorder to say something like, “I really thought I was dying,” or something similar.
Sometimes this terrible feeling can last for hours. Or even days. Or maybe ten minutes. There is no rhyme or reason to it.
If you love someone who has panic attacks, but you don’t really understand what they’re going through, just know that it’s a living hell. It’s physical, mental, and emotional torture, all rolled into one.
It can be frustrating when you witness someone experience the symptoms of panic disorder time and time again. Both the sufferer and those around them feel helpless.
But please try to have patience. And please don’t ever label sufferers of panic attacks as “fearful” or “cowardly.” We aren’t doing it on purpose. And we already feel like we’re disappointing everyone around us when it affects our ability to function in day-to-day life.
When we have to miss out on some wonderful experience because we know a panic attack might occur, there’s a sense of embarrassment and loss we have to deal with too. We feel like we’ve failed because of the way we’re wired. Many of us also feel guilt if our illness makes those around us miss out on things too — even though we shouldn’t. We didn’t ask to be made this way, and it’s not an easy problem to solve.
We Don’t Fear the Situation, We Fear the Panic Attack
There was a point in my life where I had to stop driving on the highway. That’s because I kept having severe panic attacks pretty much as soon as I zoomed down the on-ramp.
I was in college at the time, commuting to a school that was only a 25-minute drive on the highway. I had to cross a state line and a river, so the highway was the best option.
When I first started driving, the highway made me, like most new drivers, a little nervous. But for years, I could handle it. Then, sometime after I turned 21, I started having panic attacks while driving. I often had to pull over on the shoulder just so I could try to calm myself down.
For me, a panic attack always makes me want to move from the spot where I’m having it. Getting up, walking around, and going outside to get some air sometimes does the trick. So whenever I’m in a spot where I know I can’t escape, like the highway, I feel claustrophobic and trapped. (It’s also happened when I’m sitting in the middle of a row during a live show, knowing I can’t get up and leave the theater without distracting the audience and performers).
Pulling over on the shoulder and parking on a busy highway isn’t exactly safe, but I couldn’t really control my driving when I started feeling disconnected from my body and unable to breathe. Pulling over and getting out for a moment was sometimes the only way I could deal with it. Then it would pass, and I’d get back in the car, shaky from the adrenaline, but feeling better.
The attacks got so bad that for weeks, I avoided the highway altogether. Rationally, I knew I wasn’t suddenly afraid of driving. However, I was afraid of going into a situation that I knew was likely to give me a panic attack.
That’s what those with panic disorder are most afraid of — that feeling of a panic attack. So we’ll often avoid situations where we’ve had one or we think we may have one. Some people have one when they leave their front porch — and they end up housebound.
Taking a break from highway driving was enough to help me through. Eventually, I tried again, and I was able to drive to my destination without having an attack. That gave me confidence for the next time I got on the highway, which helped perpetuate a cycle of healing.
From time to time, I’ll still have a panic attack while driving, but they aren’t nearly as frequent or severe as they once were.
Keep Breaking Through
Treatment is often necessary for those with panic disorder. For some, panic attacks are fleeting and don’t happen enough to affect their ability to function. For others, the disorder might make it impossible to hold a job, travel, or even leave the house.
Finding a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for panic disorder is a good place to start. Sometimes anti-anxiety medicine is necessary too (as it is in my case).
Though my anxiety is under control to the point where I’m not visiting the emergency room every other weekend like I was last year, there is still work to be done if I’m going to get to where I want to be. Sometimes I’m hard on myself for not making as much progress as I’d like, but I have to stop and remind myself that I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve come a long way.
Healing from any mental health issue is hard work, and it’s an ongoing process that takes time. So be kind to yourself. But also, don’t be afraid to push yourself. That’s how we break through.