The 3 Stages of My Panic Attacks


Imagine sitting at dinner with your family at a favorite restaurant, celebrating a family member’s birthday. Balloons, gifts and laughter all around and all you can think to yourself is, “Please don’t have a panic attack right now.” This is how my husband’s family found out I have panic disorder. I suffered sexual abuse from age 5 to 16, and I have struggled with self-harm, PTSD, addiction, anorexia, depression and panic disorder. My panic disorder has caused me to cancel plans with my family out of fear for another attack and fear of those around me being embarrassed.

Throughout the years, I’ve looked for a clear explanation of what others have experienced within their own panic attacks to better understand them myself. Yet with every explanation I read, I would only get a list of symptoms and no personal expression. I’d just get lists — hyperventilating, sweating, fear overwhelming them. Although these are valuable examples, I was looking for something more in-depth. So I decided to write about my own experience within my attacks.

Here are the three stages of my panic attacks.

Stage 1: The Fog

When an attack is in its earliest stage, I enter a sort of mental fog or blur. If I am reading a sign, I know what I am seeing is numbers or letters. However, my brain cannot process them. I cannot follow what I am trying to read and lose focus quickly. Sounds around me become static-like, as if they’re all jumbled and indistinguishable. For instance, when you are fully submerged underwater and it’s raining out, you might hear the raindrops hitting the water, but you’re unable to pinpoint where they’re coming from. Or like the game you play as kids in the pool. You talk to each other underwater and try and guess what the other is saying.

Stage 2: Senses Awry

As my hearing starts to get muffled, my fingertips have grown numb and my stomach feels cold, as if I hadn’t eaten in days. My mouth is dry, and I get an iron taste in my mouth, as if I were just sucking on a dirty penny for the last hour. In this stage, my husband has noticed from an outside perspective that I’m within the onset of a panic attack. According to his description, I’m expressionless, and my responses become delayed or I don’t respond at all. I’m almost zombie-like. As my brain begins to catch up with the rest of my body, I enter fight-or-flight mode, with fight stuck on max. My heart rate rises rapidly and my breathing becomes labored, entering the hyperventilation phase. Within seconds it becomes difficult to breathe, my legs weaken and I can barely keep myself upright.

Stage 3: Shivering

This final stage tends to last from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the circumstances prior to the onset. At this point, my body manages to both collapse and yet stiffen, with my arms clenched to my chest. It feels like I lose control of my muscles as I begin to shiver uncontrollably — but this is not a seizure, it is shivering. It’s as if someone has thrown me into a freezer, and yet I’m sweating at the same time. And in my head, it’s as if there’s a horribly filmed home movie from my childhood stuck on a sort of fast-forward/repeat mode of the abuse I suffered in my childhood. During this stage, I tend to partially blackout. I can still hear what’s going on around me and see, but I cannot remember exactly what’s happened or how much time has passed after I’ve come out of my episode. I just remember bits of sounds and people’s faces.

I am fortunate enough that my family accepts this part of me and does what they can to help me during these moments. It is with my husband’s calming voice that I can safely return to reality and know I’m safe. It’s taken me years to accept that this is a part of me and something I cannot wish away. That is why I educate myself about mental health and work to remove the stigma against myself and others with a mental illness.

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