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To My Friends Who Are Curious About What a Panic Attack Feels Like

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What it feels like to have a panic attack…

Panic attacks are something you simply cannot fully understand unless you’ve experienced it. Throughout the years that I’ve been struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, many friends have been curious about what a panic attack is and what it feels like. So, although you still may not be able to completely understand, I’m going to try my best to explain, because I appreciate the desire of my loved ones to understand my struggles.

Sometimes I can feel it coming, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes, it is the pounding of my heart which perpetuates and increases in speed until I finally allow myself to have a panic attack. Sometimes, it comes as a sneak attack and turns into a full-blown panic attack before I even have a chance to think about it.

It usually starts in my heart. It starts pounding and gets faster and faster. Then my breathing struggles to keep up with my heart. This is also when my mind starts buzzing. “Oh, no,” it thinks. “Not again. I can’t handle this. It needs to stop.” This only adds to the increased physical sensations. My breath gets faster and faster, preventing proper oxygen from entering my body and therefore causing light-headedness and dizziness.

Then, my hands and feet begin to get shaky. Soon, my feet completely go numb and I’m forced to fall to the ground or wherever I am. I become extremely worried about who is around, who is seeing me, who is judging me. My breath becomes quicker and quicker until I begin to completely hyperventilate. Often around this point, if someone is around, they will come over and try to console me. I usually can’t understand anything they say. I can’t focus on anything except for my scattered thoughts that make me feel like I’m dying. Deep down, I know I’m not, but in the moment it feels like I’m never going to be able to gain control again. That’s the worst part — it feels like I’ve completely lost control. I can’t control my heart rate, I can’t control my breathing, I can’t control my shaky body, I can’t control my thoughts, I can’t control who is around me. Eventually, my hands and feet and sometimes my stomach get very tingly, almost like they’re falling asleep. Another thing I can’t control. I also usually either get very hot to the point where I’m sweating profusely, or very cold to the point where I’m hugging myself tight and shivering. I begin crying; a lot of times I don’t notice it until afterwards, and I usually don’t know why this occurs.


This is the climax. I think my panic attacks usually last around five minutes, although in the moment it feels like hours have passed. Eventually, my mind starts being able to focus more and I’m able to remind myself where I am and what is happening. I make myself touch the ground or someone there who I feel comfortable with in order for my body to remember what is real. I make myself become focused on my breathing first, to start to gradually make it become slower. Eventually, my breathing comes back to normal, and with it my heart becomes slower. It still takes me a while to completely recover, my hands and feet are still numb and I’m usually still crying.

But, slowly but surely, I’m able to regain control of my surroundings and know that it was only a panic attack, that it was out of my control, but that that’s OK. And I think the best thing I can do is to realize this is OK.

Everyone experiences panic attacks differently, and panic attacks for someone who experiences them frequently may even be different each time. So, the best thing you can do as a loved one of someone who experiences panic attacks is to recognize it is a real experience, it is something out of the person’s control and that it does not at all affect the person’s character or define them as a person. We appreciate your desire to try to understand.

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Thinkstock photo via iconogenic

Originally published: July 1, 2017
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