What a Panic Attack Feels Like

Even though panic attacks are unique in the fear and helplessness they cause, there are some things to which they can be compared for clarity’s sake. So, here is my list of things a panic attack feels like.

Hummingbirds filling your body.

When your heart is racing and your pulse thrums just under your skin, you can get this surreal feeling up a million little wings beating around inside of you. Those little birds flit and fly through your veins, brush against your muscles, and flutter within your chest cavity until you want to reach in and rip them out.

Someone shaking you mercilessly.

My biggest problem with panic attacks is the way my body shakes and convulses during a particularly bad one. It’s not just little shivers and shudder. It is noticeable, uncontrollable, debilitating trembling that keeps me from even standing up straight. It’s like someone has just grabbed you by the shoulders and is shaking you until your teeth feel ready to fall out.

Your body drawing into your center.

Every tendon and muscle tightens like a guitar string. Your knuckles go white. Your jaw clenches. Someone or something has grasped the strings that lead to your edges and is jerking them in toward a spot just beneath your chest. All you can wonder is when those strings will finally snap.

A whirlwind buffeting you from inside. 

The main image I get for this one is when I’m shaking so violently and crying with such pitiful force that I just start whipping my head around and sending my hair bouncing around my face. Contrary to the comparison I made a moment ago, this one feels like your pieces are being forced out, and you’ll soon fall into a heap of bits and parts with no clear function.

Your heart is a switch flipped at random.

Probably the absolute worst thing having to do with panic attacks is how utterly random they can be. While I have certain triggers, other times I can suffer an attack out of the blue. It’s horrible because when someone later asks what set it off, you feel so ashamed because you don’t know. You don’t know, and you feel like you were overreacting or being dramatic or that something is irrevocably wrong with you. But that’s just it, they can come from nowhere. More like panic ambushes than foreseeable attacks.

So, these are five things I think accurately describe the feeling of a panic attack. Notice that most of them have to do with your inner workings being affected. That’s because a panic attack is rooted in how your mind and insides work together. No one is hitting you and leaving a panic attack impressed on your chest.

The impression is from the attack pushing out.

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Something We Need To Discuss

Panic attacks are things uniquely terrifying and humiliating.

I don’t plan on talking much on here about my personal experience with panic attacks and anxiety, but I feel like it is important to discuss this kind of fear and anxiety in light of how our society handles mental health.

We (or, at least, Americans; I cannot speak for other countries) live in a society where mental illness is not seen as serious unless it affects someone other than the afflicted. We all mourn the loss of lives taken as a side effect of untreated illness (as we should), but how many grieve the cases where a single person fell apart inside without assistance, where they may not have reached out to hurt someone, but they also did not reach out for help. This, most likely because they feared the ridicule and shoving off that would probably come with it. Empathy is key to being human. We have to learn, as a society, to care for the individual, not because they may harm others (that is important of course), but because they are human too and in pain.

I suffer from cued panic attacks. This means that there are certain situations and things that trigger an attack. My attacks include shaking, sweating, heavy breathing, accelerated heart rate, the feeling that I will be sick, and an intense fear that stays with me as an undercurrent for the rest of the day. Normally, an attack will only last for a few minutes, the longest stretching into roughly an hour. However, they don’t just come in a simple burst of the above symptoms. Little jumps in blood pressure, a twisting feeling in my stomach, and a tightening of my muscles can come briefly throughout the day. Those feelings often pass immediately and do not affect the rest of my day, unlike a full-blown attack.

Without going into too much detail, my triggers relate to a certain situation that centers on an individual from my past. Glimpses of someone who looks familiar to that person may make the tendons in my neck stand out. I avoid that stranger, heart beating fast the entire way. A buzzing sensation may take up space in my stomach when I go somewhere I might see this person, and only after I find myself safe will I clench my fists to get rid of the shaking in my hands.

Sometimes it’s not so easy to escape. Sometimes it seeks me out when I’m least expecting it. One instance came up when I received an anonymous message on a website I frequent that brought a surge of bad memories with it. It was one of my worst attacks, and I kept glancing over my shoulder the rest of the day.

The point of all this is that not everyone is willing to share the information I have just posted. And with good reason. In the past I have been told that I am over-dramatic, making a big deal out of nothing, and I need to suck it up and move on. It is a painful and difficult thing to share one’s experience with anxiety and mental distress, so most people don’t. They are told on a daily basis that other things are more important than their mental health, and if they ever express concern for this issue they are being melodramatic or making it up.

It has taken me a lot of work on myself to get to the point where I feel comfortable telling people about my attacks and the issues that accompany them. I was blessed enough to be with someone who understood my problem and did not pressure me to put on a good face and pretend like everything was alright. I was also blessed to take up a station in a work environment that made me feel protected and loved; my coworkers and my boss did not question my feelings or actions, instead offering whatever assistance they could provide to make me feel safe and comfortable. These people, whether they know it or not, did a lot in helping me accept and work on my problems. Their empathy and willingness to accommodate me made it easier for me to admit to having a serious issue and ask for help.

When you suffer from a panic attack, you feel like the whole world is closing in on you. Your body betrays you and leaves you shaking and often in tears. It can be demoralizing and humiliating to have anyone see you like that. You feel like a child or an idiot. You fight to get control of yourself, and it makes it worse. Finally, you have to give in and let the fear take over what is supposed to be yours: your mind and body. That feeling of no longer being autonomous or even a whole person is terrible and something I would not wish on anyone.

If anyone reads this and identifies with what I have said, I encourage you to find someone you can trust and ask them to listen. Even having someone sit with you and let you vent is supremely helpful. There are services available, and I encourage anyone who is financial able to take advantage of them.

Mental health is as serious as physical health, and it is time our society treated it as such.