The Mighty Logo

The Calm After the Storm: What It's Like in the Aftermath of a Panic Attack

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I wish there was a word that captured the feeling of a panic attack. A strict and specific word to encapsulate one of the cruelest feelings I have ever known. It seems like my entire life has been spent searching for that one word that matches my internal definition.

The rush of blood, the fast pace of my heart rate, the moment right before the first tear falls. Some people would use a word like “fear” or “agony” to describe this. However, I still don’t think those fit. The feeling is something much more than antagonizing dread. It is much more than the feeling of death.

If you have ever experienced a panic attack, then you know what this is like. It is a roller coaster, slowly easing upwards before a huge drop — waiting for the inevitable. Except the drop never happens, and you are stuck at the very top with your heart racing and hands shaking. It is only until minutes or hours later, once you can breathe again, once you remember how to stop crying, once you can be thankful that you are alive, that the roller coaster drops and ends.

Unlike a roller coaster, a panic attack doesn’t stop once it ends. There is leftover emotion, leftover pain and exhaustion. This is the hardest part for me. My panic attacks come as quickly as they go; only a few minutes that seem like an infinity.

It is only afterwards that I realize that there is more suffering than just that initial feeling of dying. I sometimes feel ill for days afterwards. I lose my appetite and if anyone even dares to feed me, the nausea overtakes the slightest hint of hunger. And it feels as if there is never enough oxygen. I may be breathing normally, but inside it feels like my lungs are struggling to get air, struggling to obtain the one thing I need to keep my heart beating. My face and skin become dry for days from the sheer amount of tears I shed during a panic attack. And I will have scratch marks on my thighs from trying to keep my body grounded, as if gripping my body will keep me and my brain from floating deeper into my deadly thoughts. I will be fatigued for days and take naps for hours, because those five minutes of panicking were capable of making me lose all of my energy for a week.

The panic attack will break into my home, sneak into my body and truly attack. It will turn my body into a wretched beast with clear physical imperfections that could last me one minute or seven days. The five minutes that are spent searching for breath and drowning in tears will ruin me. Those five minutes will physically change me for a week.

Yet despite these struggles, expect me to be fine afterwards. I may be dry and scratched, falling asleep at the dinner table, and convincing you that I just wasn’t hungry today. I may be struggling to find air and shaking constantly, wondering if anyone else knew what it was like to feel as if death sat next to you.

I am fine, though. Don’t worry, I promise. It’s just a rough patch. I’m just stressed. I’ll be fine.

I have convinced so many people in my life that I’m “OK,”  I almost believe it myself. I have done it so well that I have learned how to catch my breath and answer a phone call right after an attack. I can make a Facetime call with friends look effortless and disguise the dried tears as simply sleep deprivation. I am able to go out to dinner after a panic attack, but I tell everyone that the scratch marks are just from my siblings. Panic attacks have taught me how to lie and fake and convince those I love that everything is alright, everything is fine. Having panic disorder has taught me more acting skills than a single drama class ever could.

When I strip back the lies and falsities, those few days after a panic attack are the days where I am most at peace. While I may not be able to breathe, and I know how many marks I have on my legs from my fingernails, I am perfectly OK.

Most people say there is a calm before the storm, and while there always is, panic attacks bring this to me backwards. Because these struggles remind me of how I am so incredibly, undeniably alive. I have dried tears on my face and haven’t washed my hair in days, but I am here. While I am not 100 percent OK, I am as close as I will ever get during those first few days. Each shallow breath, each clawed mark, each horrible wave of nausea are feelings that I take in stride simply because I have survived another attack. There are days that are worse and days that are easier, but the feeling of my heart pounding out of my chest is always the same. I know how quick it will go, how hot I will feel, how the tears will flow at the same pace as each beat. I know how this feels. That feeling that there is no word for, no clear or specific definition. It is this panicked limbo that consistently occurs throughout my life.

And I know that every night, every attack, every time, I will feel the same afterwards. I will feel tired and I will feel hurt, but I will be alive. Those first few days after a panic attack, I am at peace and OK with just being alive. There is nothing more I could need, nothing more I could ask for.

While I dread the idea of another attack and pray that there was a different way I could be reminded of my glorious existence, I know that this is my life. Whether I want it or not, I have to accept it and accept that each attack will make me feel grateful to be alive. There might not be a word for the feeling of an attack, but I know there is a word for those first few days after. Serenity.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Daviles

Originally published: June 7, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home