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Here's What an Anxiety Attack Looks Like on 6 Different People

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Growing up, I thought I knew what an anxiety attack looked like – rocking back and forth, shaking, screaming, and crying. That’s what I always assumed, until I had my first real anxiety attack and I learned just how wrong I was.

Anxiety attacks manifest in many ways for different people and situations. Sometimes they’re as quiet as a whisper. Other times they’re violent and loud. Personally, I’ve experienced everything from hyperventilating, to complete silence as my mind races while the world swirls around me.

This is me in the midst of a two hour anxiety attack. 

The day pictured would become the hardest day of my life to date. My emotional support animal and literal life line had to be put down. It’s very evident that I’m upset. I was in hysterics, panicking the entire two hour drive back home. Thousands of thoughts ran through my head concurrently. My breathing patterns were erratic and labored, but I did my best to keep it together, which looked and sounded like me forcing a smile and shrieking out Taylor Swift lyrics because I didn’t want to upset my dog in her final moments. I needed her final hours to be good and not about me.

A very cute but very distraught Black girl holds an orange sable pomeranian dog. The dog's eyes are closed, and she's in a car. The girl tries to smile for the camear, but has tears in her eyes. She has braids. The sun is shining bright outside.

The Mighty decided to reach out to our Super Contributors to see how anxiety attacks have physically manifested for them. Here’s what they had to say:

1. “I may look calm here, but my heart is racing, my mind is anxious, and I’m just trying to fight through my anxiety one breath at a time.  

Often, even the people who know me best don’t know I’m struggling with anxiety.  It presents quietly — racing thoughts, sweaty palms, and sudden onslaughts of rapid heartbeats and shallow breathing.  I also tend to withdraw when I’m having anxiety attacks, which makes them even less conspicuous.  Check on your ‘peaceful,’ ‘happy’ friends — they may be silently struggling with anxiety or panic attacks.” – Kelly D.

A girl smiles at the camera with her eyes closed, wearing a Black tank top. It's a Black and White photo.

2. “I have frequent anxiety attacks, at least once a day, often multiple times in a day. 

I have fought and won a lot of battles in my life from an abusive childhood to an abusive spouse. The last battle to overcome is my own brain and it is by far the hardest. I have many things [I do]  to try to distract myself during these times, but sometimes you just have to stare blankly with silent tears streaming down your face until it is finally over.” – Nera B.

A person with bright pink hair in a green shirt stares forlornly at the camera. They wear glasses and are against a wall.

3. “When people witness [anxiety attacks] they get extremely concerned because it comes out with uncontrollable sobbing that looks quite alarming. 

The sobbing is loud enough that my husband doesn’t even need to be in the same room as me to know I’m having a panic attack. Mentally, all that repeats in my mind is, ‘I need to die. I need to die. I need to kill myself. I need to die.’ Due to the severity of my thoughts, I usually need to take medicine to calm me down quickly so I can use my coping skills before things escalate. Then, I’ll focus on my breathing, use grounding techniques, and recently I’ve been practicing humming or singing to my favorite songs to stimulate my vagus nerve, which is a nerve that can calm down your body.– Mel H.

A white girl with brown curly hair stares off camera with red cheeks and eyes, having just cried. She's very flushed in a blue shirt in her house

4. “This photo was taken while my body was overtaken by anxiety, but you couldn’t tell at all from the outside.

It was a dream come true for me to speak at a conference like this and I was so excited about it. But while this was how I spent the afternoon, I had actually spent the morning at a psychiatric facility exploring their intensive outpatient day program. My mental health was really suffering, but I couldn’t show it on stage. On top of that, this was the day the Christchurch mosque attack happened, and as a Muslim, my hyper vigilance and anxiety about islamophobia was extremely heightened. This photo was taken Friday, and the following Monday I went on mental health leave at work.” – Ameera L.

A person stands in a blue blazer at a conference speaking. They have brown skin and dark black hair, and glasses.

5. “I had just run out of a building, mid-panic attack. 

As I was crying, I also noticed it was beautiful outside. I started taking photos, which led me to taking this selfie. I can’t explain why I took a picture just then, other than ‘Doing it for the gram.’ I find it odd that you really can’t see how upset I was because I was not okay.” – Heidi F.

A white woman stands staring at the camera smiling with a snowy bridge behind her. She has glasses on and her hair pinned back with an olive green blazer.

6. “Anxiety attacks can come in like a tsunami, a slow rise until a massive deadly wave is threatening to crash into me. 

And then I’m underwater fighting to breathe. Crying releases all the pain and frustration. It helps soothe my body.” — Amelia B.

In black and white, a woman has tear stains on her face. She wears a dark black shirt

Anxiety attacks don’t have “one look.” The more you know about the different ways anxiety attacks can manifest mentally and physically, the better you’re prepared to take care of yourself in potentially triggering situations.

Stay mighty, and remember above all else,

You aren’t alone.

Lead image courtesy of contributor Kelly Douglas

Originally published: February 1, 2022
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