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What It's Like to Have a Panic Attack, From 24 People Who've Been There

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Imagine what it feels like to lose a child in a crowded mall. Maybe he’s yours, or maybe you’re babysitting. Whatever the situation, now he’s gone. Your heart rate speeds up. Maybe you start to sweat. Panicky questions swirl around in your head: Is he OK? What if I don’t find him? What if something happens? Shallow breathes knock the wind out of you, and the room starts spinning until finally… you find him. Even after you sigh with relief, you can still feel your heart pounding in your chest.

Now imagine this happens with more intensity but randomly and seemingly without cause. This is the reality for the six million Americans who have panic disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes spontaneous panic attacks with no obvious trigger, according the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. But even those without panic disorder can experience a panic attack, and for those who do, it’s a truly scary experience.

To better understand what it feels like to have a panic attack, we asked our Mighty readers to describe what it’s like. Here’s what they had to say:

1. “It’s like you’re drowning in a pool, but the people around you don’t see. They think you’re swimming like them.” — Louann Fabel

2. “Every part of your body is in overdrive. Your mind, your fears, your heartbeat, your breathing. Except there’s no brake pedal. You have to coast through until it eventually stops.”  — Lexie Nooyen

3. “Panic attacks crash down like an avalanche.” — Charlene Dewbre

“Panic attacks crash down like an avalanche.”

4. “It’s like my body is going on without me, and my brain said, ‘Nope!’” — Danielle Myers

5. “The smallest things can trigger the biggest feelings. It’s like someone lights a match and you react as if a bomb is about to go off.” — Mandy Ree

6. “It’s like an elephant sitting on your chest while you’re blindfolded and drowning.” — Kelley Pelton Mindrup

“It's like an elephant sitting on your chest while you're blindfolded and drowning.”

7. “It’s like everything inside you is building up into a gigantic tidal wave that’s going to break out of your body.” — Mary McCarthy

8. “It’s like you’re stuffed into a small box and someone starts sucking out the air.” — Janet Edwards

9. “While some are loud and overt, mine are silently busy with every irrational fear colliding at once.” — Danielle Saunders

10. “It feels like your mind is desperately trying to regain control of a body that has gone completely rogue. The more your mind tries to unscramble the circuits in your head, lungs and limbs, the more your body tenses, hyperventilates, panics and fights back.” —Harmony Rose Rogers

11. “It’s the feeling when someone scares you, except it doesn’t go away.” — Avery Roe

12. “It’s like being thrown into the ocean and not knowing how to swim.” — Jennifer Navarro

“It's like being thrown into the ocean and not knowing how to swim.”

13. “No matter how hard I breath I can’t get enough oxygen to my brain.” — Murrin Elizabeth Brads

14. “It’s like the sky is falling down and you’re paralyzed, unable to do anything but be scared.” — Megan Rutherford

15. “Everything goes in slow motion like the movie ‘The Matrix.’ You can see and hear people, but you’ve officially entered a new physical realm. No one knows you’re there, and no one hears you.” — Norma Fernandez

16. “Out of nowhere, every irrational fear becomes a mental monster that has tied you up against your will.” — Savanna Smith

“Out of nowhere, every irrational fear becomes a mental monster that has tied you up against your will.”

17. “You feel like you need to run away from yourself.” — Becky Lewis Vivian

18. “[It’s like a] pressure cooker boiling with a lid.” — Claudia Tacy

19.It’s like a near-death experience, but you know it’s all in your head because you’re just sitting on the couch.” — Christy Vogel

20. “It’s like fireworks exploding continuously in your chest.” — DeAnna Wry

"It's like fireworks exploding continuously in your chest."

21. “It’s like your heart is on fire.”  Teresa Watt

22. “Racing thoughts. Can’t breathe. Can’t think. Trapped in my skin. Frantic actions. Pacing. Curling up tight. Tight chest. I’m dying. Can’t think. Nothing makes sense. Trapped. Drowning. Hyperventilating. Finally calm. Detached. Out of sync. Exhausted.”  Cassandra Coogan

23. “It’s like a giant crushing your heart and lungs.” Macho Bravado

24. “It’s like your skeleton is trying to jump out of your body.”  — Andrew Simpkins

 "It's like your skeleton is trying to jump out of your body."


*Some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

If you’ve experienced a panic attack, can you relate? Tell us in the comments below.

Originally published: September 2, 2015
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