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What It's Like to Have a Panic Attack

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Sometimes, I can feel the anxiety building. Other times, it comes on suddenly and hits me like a ton of bricks. Whichever way it comes, having a panic attack is one of the worst experiences I’ve been through.

Usually, it starts with shaking. My hands shake. My body shakes. For some reason, I get this jerky, bouncy movement in my left leg, and only in my left leg. Before I know it, I’m like wibbly, wobbly jelly on a plate.

Then, I start to lose my breath. It feels like I can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs and I start to breathe faster and harder, trying to get as much air in as I can. My mouth goes dry from breathing so hard. This is usually when the tears start flowing. I get tingling sensations in my fingers, lips and right down my arms when it’s bad. I feel my heartbeat getting faster. Sometimes, I can actually hear it in my ears.

Boom, boom, boom.

By this stage, I usually have trouble moving. If I’m not sitting already, then I need to. I get light-headed and dizzy. I’m terrified if I try to get up, walk or move somewhere. I might pass out or fall over, which of course contradicts my other instinct to run away. Nothing is ever simple with panic.

My mind races at more than 1,000 kilometers per hour and doesn’t even make any sense. I can’t think. I can’t connect thoughts. I can’t understand what is happening. It is illogical. I know it, but still I can’t make it stop.

I have trouble speaking in the midst of a panic attack. This is partly because I can’t think straight enough to construct a sentence that will make sense to the person listening. It is also partly because I can’t get enough air in to breathe properly, let alone speak. At moments like this, the best anyone is going to get out of me is a “yes” or “no” answer.

Some things are helpful when I am having a panic attack, like someone being there, reminding me to breathe and breathing with me. Quiet definitely helps. In fact, it’s almost a requirement. Sometimes, someone holding my hand helps, but sometimes I need space. (It’s best to ask me on that one, bearing in mind it needs to be phrased so I can answer “yes” or “no.”) Patience. Bucket loads of patience. I’m fully aware of how irrational I can be and I really wish I could just turn it off but I can’t. So patience is definitely needed.

Some things are not helpful when I am having a panic attack: people talking too much, people expecting me to talk, being crowded (I really need my space) and too much noise. There are certain things that can trigger my panic attacks. Some of these things include crowds, loud noise, constant or repetitive noises, too much happening all at once and sometimes new places and people. None of these things are of any real threat to my safety. Yet, my brain seems to think otherwise.

Sometimes, though, panic attacks just happen for no obvious reason at all. I will just get this feeling of intense emotion I can’t label or define and bam! The panic attack is on. After a panic attack has subsided, I’m usually left feeling completely and utterly exhausted. I feel like I could sleep forever.

Below is a technical diagram of what a panic attack is like for me:

Stick figure diagram showing the symptoms of the writer's panic attacks

I hope this helps those who haven’t experienced a panic attack to understand what it feels like. You can see the shaking, the tears and even the hyperventilating, but there are other symptoms you can’t see, the racing thoughts and the tingling lips and fingers. While some people can speak through a panic attack, others can’t. No one should try and force that because it could make the panic worse. If you are helping someone through a panic attack, then it is important to know there are multiple feelings and sensations going on for the person. Remaining calm is vital in helping them also find calm.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on The Nut Factory.

Originally published: September 2, 2016
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