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This Is What It Feels Like to Have a Panic Attack

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I want you to take a trip with me. You’re going about your typical day, nothing quite out of the ordinary, when suddenly it hits you.

Your world just went black. Everything is dark. Every sound is amplified, but your world is total blackness. You have no ability to see what is happening around you. Your heart has been replaced with a diesel engine, roaring uncontrollably in your chest. And the smell — oh, that smell. It’s suffocating you — you can’t breathe. There’s an elephant sitting on your chest. The diesel engine isn’t quite strong enough to pull it off of you, but it continues to fight with all it has and you cannot make it stop. You cannot make it stop. It’s roaring, it’s pounding. It’s going 500 mph and you cannot control it. Your own body has escaped your control. Your heart and lungs have a mind of their own and you have no ruling over them. You’re stuck, and there’s nothing you can do.

Your mind has locked on to only two things: First, a desperate need for survival; Second, a very long list of all of the possible threats to your well-being, including some you have subconsciously managed to fabricate. But they feel so real. They feel so real. Everything. It feels so real. Fight or flight. You try to run, but you can’t. You’re stuck. You can’t move. You can’t breathe. There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing you can do. The entire world has just crumpled on your shoulders, but you cannot fix it. You cannot do anything. Nothing. You cannot do it. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t. You are doomed. Everything is doomed. Everyone and everything you care about is gone. All of it. Your family. Your friends. Your pets. Gone. They’re all gone. Completely and totally gone. You are lost in the void. No one can see you, but everyone is watching you. Watching. Watching. They’re all watching.

Anything you do is a risk, but doing nothing is a risk too. Every move you make has the potential to become a problem, and your life is on the line. This is not a test. A small part of you knows what you’re feeling isn’t real, but that piece of your mind is overpowered by the sheer terror you’re feeling. You don’t know what to do. There’s nothing you can do. Everything is doomed. Your life is falling apart at the seams and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

The panic calms down and you slowly return to your state of typical functioning. Your heart is still pounding in your chest, but you can think clearly again. Eventually, your pulse calms down and everything is back to “normal.” Well, until the next time, that is.

This is what people who struggle with panic attacks typically face constantly. It could strike at any moment, and the smallest things can set it off. There’s nothing they can do to just make it stop — they can try coping mechanisms to some extent, but it’s extremely difficult to make healthy, rational decisions when your mind is overwhelmed by sheer terror, and even then, coping skills can only do so much. When that adrenaline rush hits, you just have to let it run its course because it’s already in your bloodstream.

Panic attacks are overwhelming and terrifying and even debilitating at times. They’re not a joke, and people struggling with them are not exaggerating. They’re very real, and they feel absolutely awful.

In writing this, I hope it allows you to understand more clearly what people with panic attacks have to deal with, time after time. Please respond with compassion if someone opens up about having panic attacks — they’re already struggling with enough, so the last thing they need is inconsiderate commentary from someone they thought they could trust. Support them, even if it’s just in little things — like handing them a box of tissues or giving them a kind note when they’ve had a rough day. Supporting people doesn’t have to mean anything huge — it’s recognized more with small, consistent gestures that show you care.

Photo by Ricards Zalmezs on Unsplash

Originally published: June 22, 2018
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