What It's Like to Have a Panic Attack, From 24 People Who've Been There

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Imagine what it feels like to lose a child in a crowded mall. Maybe he’s yours, or maybe you’re babysitting. Whatever the situation, now he’s gone. Your heart rate speeds up. Maybe you start to sweat. Panicky questions swirl around in your head: Is he OK? What if I don’t find him? What if something happens? Shallow breathes knock the wind out of you, and the room starts spinning until finally… you find him. Even after you sigh with relief, you can still feel your heart pounding in your chest.

Now imagine this happens with more intensity but randomly and seemingly without cause. This is the reality for the six million Americans who have panic disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes spontaneous panic attacks with no obvious trigger, according the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. But even those without panic disorder can experience a panic attack, and for those who do, it’s a truly scary experience.

To better understand what it feels like to have a panic attack, we asked our Mighty readers to describe what it’s like. Here’s what they had to say:

1. “It’s like you’re drowning in a pool, but the people around you don’t see. They think you’re swimming like them.” — Louann Fabel

2. “Every part of your body is in overdrive. Your mind, your fears, your heartbeat, your breathing. Except there’s no brake pedal. You have to coast through until it eventually stops.”  — Lexie Nooyen

3. “Panic attacks crash down like an avalanche.” — Charlene Dewbre

“Panic attacks crash down like an avalanche.”

4. “It’s like my body is going on without me, and my brain said, ‘Nope!’” — Danielle Myers

5. “The smallest things can trigger the biggest feelings. It’s like someone lights a match and you react as if a bomb is about to go off.” — Mandy Ree

6. “It’s like an elephant sitting on your chest while you’re blindfolded and drowning.” — Kelley Pelton Mindrup

“It's like an elephant sitting on your chest while you're blindfolded and drowning.”

7. “It’s like everything inside you is building up into a gigantic tidal wave that’s going to break out of your body.” — Mary McCarthy

8. “It’s like you’re stuffed into a small box and someone starts sucking out the air.” — Janet Edwards

9. “While some are loud and overt, mine are silently busy with every irrational fear colliding at once.” — Danielle Saunders

10. “It feels like your mind is desperately trying to regain control of a body that has gone completely rogue. The more your mind tries to unscramble the circuits in your head, lungs and limbs, the more your body tenses, hyperventilates, panics and fights back.” —Harmony Rose Rogers

11. “It’s the feeling when someone scares you, except it doesn’t go away.” — Avery Roe

12. “It’s like being thrown into the ocean and not knowing how to swim.” — Jennifer Navarro

“It’s like being thrown into the ocean and not knowing how to swim.”

13. “No matter how hard I breath I can’t get enough oxygen to my brain.” — Murrin Elizabeth Brads

14. “It’s like the sky is falling down and you’re paralyzed, unable to do anything but be scared.” — Megan Rutherford

15. “Everything goes in slow motion like the movie ‘The Matrix.’ You can see and hear people, but you’ve officially entered a new physical realm. No one knows you’re there, and no one hears you.” — Norma Fernandez

16. “Out of nowhere, every irrational fear becomes a mental monster that has tied you up against your will.” — Savanna Smith

“Out of nowhere, every irrational fear becomes a mental monster that has tied you up against your will.”

17. “You feel like you need to run away from yourself.” — Becky Lewis Vivian

18. “[It’s like a] pressure cooker boiling with a lid.” — Claudia Tacy

19.It’s like a near-death experience, but you know it’s all in your head because you’re just sitting on the couch.” — Christy Vogel

20. “It’s like fireworks exploding continuously in your chest.” — DeAnna Wry

"It's like fireworks exploding continuously in your chest."

21. “It’s like your heart is on fire.”  Teresa Watt

22. “Racing thoughts. Can’t breathe. Can’t think. Trapped in my skin. Frantic actions. Pacing. Curling up tight. Tight chest. I’m dying. Can’t think. Nothing makes sense. Trapped. Drowning. Hyperventilating. Finally calm. Detached. Out of sync. Exhausted.”  Cassandra Coogan

23. “It’s like a giant crushing your heart and lungs.” Macho Bravado

24. “It’s like your skeleton is trying to jump out of your body.”  — Andrew Simpkins

 "It's like your skeleton is trying to jump out of your body."

 

*Some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

If you’ve experienced a panic attack, can you relate? Tell us in the comments below.

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Gripping Photos Capture What This Woman Feels Like During a Panic Attack

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Katie Crawford, 23, is a senior at Louisiana State University. The photography student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has lived with generalized anxiety disorder for 10 years. When the time came for her to choose a topic for her senior thesis, she decided to convey her anxiety through a series of creatively modified self-portraits.

Image of a woman in a white dress, looking hauntingly at the camera.
depression is when you can’t feel at all. anxiety is when you feel too much. having both is a constant war within your own mind. having both means never winning.

Entitled “My Anxious Heart,” Crawford’s photo series depicts how she experiences anxiety.

“I am visually interpreting my own emotional and physical journey so others may be able to understand this weight that so many bear in our society,” she wrote in her artist statement on her website.

Crawford was inspired to create the photographs when she took a class called “Artist as Researcher.” She was assigned a semester-long investigative project about what motivates her as an artist. Having never taken on such a longterm, open-ended project before, Crawford didn’t know where to begin, and she grew anxious.

“Then it clicked,” she told The Mighty. “I wanted to show everyone this thing that followed me and kept me from being able to do the most basic things.”

When she was about 18, Crawford began writing down sentence fragments and bursts of thought each time she had a panic attack to try to encapsulate the difficult-to-describe feelings. Those fragments and thoughts would eventually become the phrases that caption each photograph.

A woman lies in a tub of water.
my head is filling with helium. focus is fading. such a small decision to make. such an easy question to answer. my mind isn’t letting me. it’s like a thousands circuits are all crossing at once.
A woman tries to carry water jugs and balances one on her head. They all come crashing down.
a glass of water isn’t heavy. it’s almost mindless when you have to pick one up. but what if you couldn’t empty it or set it down? what if you had to support its weight for days… months… years? the weight doesn’t change, but the burden does. at a certain point, you can’t remember how light it used to seem. sometimes it takes everything in you to pretend it isn’t there. and sometimes, you just have to let it fall.
A woman in a white night gown curls up, wet, in fog.
it’s strange — in the pit of your stomach. it’s like when you’re swimming and you want to put your feet down but the water is deeper than you thought. you can’t touch the bottom and your heart skips a beat.

Once Crawford began recording her feelings, she was able to identify concrete symptoms.

“I was able to think of literal interpretations to depict what I had discovered,” she told The Mighty. “Not feeling able to breathe when you can? That’s like saran wrap over your mouth when your nose is still free. Can’t get out of bed today? Well, there’s something laying next to you saying that’s OK to do because everything else is scary. Someone asked you to make a decision but you can’t even explain why it’s difficult to do, let alone make the decision? I might as well be trying to swim with fabric covering me as I come up for air.”

A woman stands wrapped in plastic wrap from her mouth down.
they keep telling me to breathe. i can feel my chest moving up and down. up and down. up and down. but why does it feel like i’m suffocating? i hold my hand under my nose, making sure there is air. i still can’t breathe.
A woman faces backwards -- there's a cloud where her head should be.
a captive of my own mind. the instigator of my own thoughts. the more i think, the worse it gets. the less i think, the worse it gets. breathe. just breathe. drift. it’ll ease soon.
A woman sits and leans down, her back is full of cracks.
cuts so deep it’s like they’re never going to heal. pain so real, it’s almost unbearable. i’ve become this… this cut, this wound. all i know is this same pain; sharp breath, empty eyes, shaky hands. if it’s so painful, why let it continue? unless… maybe it’s all that you know.

Her aim for the project was to help others, but Crawford was surprised to find that creating these photographs also helped her work through her own feelings.

“All of it was therapy. Every moment,” Crawford told The Mighty. “Each time I spent more than six hours on a shot that didn’t work and I had to start over or give up? Therapeutic. I had to beat it. I didn’t waste those hours, I had the opportunity to make the photo better. I learned self-discipline that I never had. I learned patience with myself that I never had.”

A woman in a white night gown lays curled up next to a figure covered in a black sheet.
i was scared of sleeping. i felt the most raw panic in complete darkness. actually, complete darkness wasn’t scary. it was that little bit of light that would cast a shadow — a terrifying shadow.
A woman wrapped in a black sheet lies on a tile floor.
no matter how much i resist, it’ll always be right here desperate to hold me, cover me, break down with me. each day i fight it, “you’re not good for me and you never will be.” but there it is waiting for me when i wake up and eager to hold me as i sleep. it takes my breath away. it leaves me speechless.
Two old clocks next to an hour glass. A woman is crouched inside the hour glass.
i’m afraid to live and i’m afraid to die. what a way to exist.

“I just want these photos to begin a conversation,” Crawford told The Mighty. “After a decade-long struggle, it feels amazing to finally have the disorder depicted and available for others to utilize in any way they can.”

A woman has a bird cage on her head, where another image of the same woman sits, trapped.
you were created for me and by me. you were created for my seclusion. you were created by venomous defense. you are made of fear and lies. fear of unrequited promises and losing trust so seldom given. you’ve been forming my entire life. stronger and stronger.
A woman, naked, crouches and holds her head against a black backdrop.
numb feeling. how oxymoronic. how fitting. can you actually feel numb? or is it the inability to feel? am i so used to being numb that i’ve equated it to an actual feeling?

Crawford is currently working on compiling the photos from this series and others into a book. To learn more about Crawford and see more of her work, visit her website and Facebook page.

Photos courtesy of Katie Crawford. 

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The Clothing Line That Lets You Know It’s OK to Talk About Mental Illness

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Wear Your Label is a clothing company that aims to generate discussion around mental health and “ultimately end the stigma (in style).” The fashion line includes hats, T-shirts, tank tops and bracelets that feature slogans like, “Sad but rad,” “Stressed but well-dressed” and “Self-care isn’t selfish.”

View More: http://mayasherwoodphotography.pass.us/wylsummer

View More: http://mayasherwoodphotography.pass.us/wylsummer
Photo credit Maya Sherwood

Kayley Reed, 21, and Kyle MacNevin, 22, both from New Brunswick, Canada, cofounded the clothing company in July 2014. The two University of New Brunswick students came up with the idea after working together at a local mental health organization and subsequently bonding over their own mental illnesses. Reed is recovering from an eating disorder, and MacNevin has generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD.

“Before starting Wear Your Label, I was not open about my mental health issues at all,” Reed told The Mighty. “It wasn’t until I met Kyle that I realized how impactful it can be to share your story.”

View More: http://mayasherwoodphotography.pass.us/wyl
Photo credit Maya Sherwood

Reed and MacNevin draw on their own experiences with mental illness to develop the empowering expressions on their designs. They then screen print the slogans onto the clothing in their studio — something Reed says was important to her and MacNevin to do themselves.

“It adds another layer of meaning to the clothing,” she told The Mighty. “When you get this clothing, you know it was made by someone who’s going through something similar to what you’re going through.”

View More: http://mayasherwoodphotography.pass.us/wyl
Photo credit Maya Sherwood
Credit- Hanna Walters
Photo credit Hanna Walters

Reed said she hopes someone who sees another person wearing Wear Your Label clothing will instantly feel safer and more empowered to share how they feel — something they may not have had the chance to do before.

“I think what scares people about talking about your mental illness is not knowing what kind of reaction they’ll get,” Reed told The Mighty. “There’s so much stigma that surrounds the issue, and it can be really terrifying to put yourself out there like that.”

“It wasn’t until I started sharing what I’d been through that I realized how common it is,” she added. “Starting Wear Your Label has helped me gain confidence and really take ownership of my own mental health.”

Wear Your Label is launching a Kickstarter campaign on May 20 to fundraise to expand its clothing line. To learn more about the company and see what it currently carries, visit the project’s website

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He Figured Out a Powerful Way to Explain What Depression Feels Like

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People experience depression differently. Others are completely unfamiliar with it. This makes it an often hard-to-understand condition.

But in the powerful video below, poet Dan Roman describes the reality of having depression through a metaphor a lot of people can relate to — living in an apartment, paying rent and dealing with a roommate. “My body is an apartment I can no longer afford because of the location,” he says in the beginning of his performance at the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

About halfway through the video, Roman introduces the character of his roommate, depression. “I have a roommate now — or maybe I always have,” he says. “Someone who started out as a silhouette stranger on the other end of the bedroom.”

Watch the full video from Button Poetry below to see how Roman beautifully explains what depression feels like for him.

h/t Upworthy

For more resources on depression, visit the Mental Health America website.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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This Is What OCD Feels Like to Me

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I have OCD. This makes me feel like a human juxtaposition. I feel happy, yet also sad. I want freedom but, at the same time, I want control. I want to be alone, yet surrounded by lots of people. It’s a constant conflict in my mind, two opposing feelings, two opposite desires for life.

What’s often tricky is trying to choose which feeling to listen to, or if I should actually listen to any at all. Are these emotions just working in tandem at this moment in time? Is there anything I can do to separate them? Or should I try to analyze my emotions and make a cumulative decision on how to get myself out of this mindset? It’s like my emotions get mushed together until they’re shrouded in fog. Undefinable.

The best way I can describe this is by imagining emotions as paint. Happiness is white and sadness is black. Sometimes we feel them as separate emotions. They are easily definable, simply black or white, but sometimes they can mix together into a convoluted mess of color. The black and white form grey; the happiness and sadness form almost nothingness. That middle color–is it more white or is it more black? Which color outweighs which? Am I actually happy or am I, in fact, sad? Do I accept the fact that the primary colors cannot be reversed? Should I just let my emotions be? Or do I analyze this grey?  I’m not suggesting either of these methods is the “right” one. Emotions are complicated.

Conflict in our minds is a daily battle. Unfortunately, it’s going to happen regardless of what we do. “Intrusive Thoughts vs Rational Thoughts – The Prequel” (aka my life); however, they don’t always cause us distress. For example, there could be the conflict between which coat to wear. Does it go with my outfit? Is this jacket too warm? What if it gets sunny? But what is it gets cold? Every day, discussions arise in our heads without us even realizing.

Thoughts can have us jumping from emotion to emotion and, sometimes, even no emotion at all, but that’s OK. At this moment in time I have no real advice about what to do in these situations, other than understand. I really hope my explanation above was somewhat understandable too…It’s OK to lose grip of your emotions, it’s OK not to understand your emotions, it’s OK not to be able to define your emotions. It’s really tricky, I know, but this feeling (or non feeling) will pass. You’re not alone in this.

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This post originally appeared on Ellen’s OCD blog

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5 Things to Do When Someone You Love Experiences Depression

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Plenty of information exists for what not to say to someone with depression, but far fewer resources help you know what you should say or do when a loved one is going through a difficult period. To better understand what people find most helpful when experiencing depression, The Mighty turned to our readers. We asked them on Facebook to share one thing they appreciate hearing from others or wish people would say or do more often when they’re feeling depressed.

Here’s what we learned.

1. Be physically present.

When you can’t find the right words or the person you’re with isn’t ready to talk, just sitting with them in silence or holding their hand can be just what they need.

“There’s nothing they can say that will help, but someone trying to be physically present for me when I turn into a hermit and have difficulty going out due to a tight schedule and social anxiety would be amazing,” reader Trianna Landon wrote on Facebook.

Another reader, Claudia Berry-Iacovetto, agreed: “Just a little bit of silent company and a small touch is good,” she wrote on Facebook.

 

2. Also know when to give someone space.

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, the best way to help someone is to give them time alone. “Space is essential,” blogger Antony Harvey, who lives with depression, wrote in his post, “8 Ways to Support a Partner Living With Depression.”

If a loved one who has depression withdraws or pushes you away, it doesn’t mean they don’t still want and need you in their life. “At the really low points, remember you are loved, wanted and needed, even if it seems like you aren’t,” Harvey added.

 

3. Acknowledge that depression is a real illness.

Common misconceptions like “people with depression are not mentally strong” and “depression is not a real illness” can cause people who live with depression to feel undervalued and misunderstood. Validating someone’s feelings and acknowledging that depression is a real illness is one of the most important things you can do for someone who has depression.

“Pretend I have cancer or any other debilitating illness. Just remember I have an illness, too,” blogger LaRee Etter wrote in her post, “To My Loved Ones Who Feel Helpless About My Depression.” “Don’t dismiss what I’m going through. It may be invisible to you, but it is ever so real and debilitating to me.”

“I still have lingering postpartum depression that hits at random times. I really appreciate the people who tell me I’m not crazy for feeling the way I feel,” reader Moosey Mae told us on Facebook. “I need to hear it’s OK for me to feel depressed, and I try to do the same for people I know who have depression. It’s a very real thing!”

 

4. Do what you can to alleviate small, everyday pressures.

When a person is experiencing depression, typical day-to-day tasks can feel like insurmountable obstacles, so tackling chores like taking out the garbage and washing dishes is a great way to help out.

“These days, there is always stuff that needs to be done, bills that need to be paid, plumbers that need to be called, shopping that needs to be happen,” Harvey wrote in his blog. “If possible, try to take away as much of this stress from us as you can.”

“If I’m struggling, offer me something to eat. Fix dinner or bring over a casserole. Offer to mow my lawn, shovel the snow or help with laundry,” Etter wrote in her blog. “Do anything you would do for a loved one having difficulty caring for themselves due to any illness.”

 

5. Make sure they know they’re loved and not in this alone. 

Many of the readers who responded on Facebook said the most important thing to them is that people show love and support any way they can. “Sometimes, just knowing someone cares means everything,” reader Allen Moredock wrote.

Readers Crystal Malta and Genevieve Lyon Butler each said that even when they don’t feel up to socializing, they appreciate when friends and family reach out to them. “I would love for people to keep reaching out to me even when I withdraw and to let me know they aren’t upset when I go long periods of time without contacting them,” Malta wrote. “Depression can be so isolating.”

“I have a great friend who is an expert at making sure I feel loved. She text messages me every other day, saying things like, ‘How are you today? I’m here if you need me,’ or ‘I’m thinking of you, do you want to come over for a glass of wine?’ or ‘I love you,’” Butler wrote. “When I can’t come because it’s just to much, she says, ‘I completely understand. But I will keep trying.’”

 

*Some responses have been edited and shortened.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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