What Does A Panic Attack Feel Like? 10 People Describe Their Experiences
Whenever a character in television show or movie has a panic attack, they all tend to act the same: They look like a deer in the headlights, either hyperventilating or standing perfectly stock-still. While the Mayo Clinic states that shortness of breath and intense feelings of fear are typical symptoms of panic attacks, they can look, feel, and physically manifest differently for each and every person.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates around 40 million Americans have some type of anxiety disorder. What's more, around three million people alone are specifically diagnosed with a panic disorder. Despite anxiety disorders being one of the most common types of mental illness in the U.S., they can consist of a wide range of symptoms, as well as individual triggers relating to trauma, social anxiety, and more. Oppositely, people can also have a panic attack for absolutely no apparent reason, or without the presence of a certain trigger, and that can be upsetting, too.
Point being, it's time to pay attention to the fact that no one person's panic attack looks exactly the same as someone else's — but they all are valid experiences. From invisible symptoms, to losing the ability to speak, 10 people describe the unique symptoms they experience during a panic attack.
1. "It just feels like a hamster wheel that won't stop spinning"
Alexa Curtis, the CEO of Life Unfiltered with Alexa, tells Bustle she's been dealing with a severe anxiety disorder for most of her life. "I wake up probably half of the week in the middle of the night, or around 3 to 4 a.m. with such panic and stress in my heart, and in my mind that it's hard for me to turn it off," she says.
"It just feels like a hamster wheel that won't stop spinning. I've come to terms with my anxiety and have learned to accept that it's a part of me," she explains. "But, meditating every morning and staying on a routine helps me put things into perspective when my anxiety starts to act up."
2. "Like a tight sheet"
For some people, like Lauren, a songwriter and musician, "Panic attacks come on like a tight sheet enveloping my whole body that presses the air from my lungs." She says, "I can hear the blood pounding in my ears, as they begin to ring, and my breathing turns shallow. It becomes hard to keep my eyes open, as my heart races to the point where it feels like my chest will break open."
3. "I feel out of control"
Genevra, an activist, explains that the first time she had a panic attack, she thought she was actually dying. (In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that panic attacks are often mistaken confused with heart attacks.)
"It usually starts in my throat; it closes off to where I feel like I am suffocating. I cannot swallow. My heart races, and I feel like I have fire ants all over my face. I feel out of control," she says. "My panic attacks last anywhere from twenty minutes, to several hours. The only thing that works for my panic attacks is [taking medication]."
4. "I can't hold myself together"
"For me, a panic attack is something almost nothing but medications can help. I think that something awful will happen, I can't hold myself together. I literally feel like I am just alone," explains Gundega, a law student. "The best remedy," if there's no access to medication, "is walking slowly with someone, having them talk about stuff I don't have to respond to, and breathing very slowly."
5. "Nausea and dizziness"
"My panic attacks typically manifest with intense physical sensations of nausea and dizziness, accompanied by the stereotypical shaking, and elevated heart rate," says Colin, a youth coordinator. "At their worst, I have 'silent' panic attacks where I shut down, and lose the ability to form sentences or cohesive thoughts." "
6. "I get physically sick"
Lisa, a certified nursing assistant, explains to Bustle her panic attacks tend to present in two different ways: "One of which comes out in anger and stress, and my thoughts race as if I can’t grasp one to hang onto. And, I get physically sick," she says.
She adds that, "I am usually able to identify that I’m having a panic attack, but I can’t seem to get enough air. I start to shut down and cover my face and breathe very quickly. I can hear directions given to me (such as 'take deep breaths'), but I can’t seem to process the phrases."
7. "It’s as if the weight of the world descends onto my shoulders"
Alisa, an artist, tells Bustle, "My breath catches and becomes slow, yet shallow, so I don’t realize I’m struggling to breathe. My jaw clenches, and my shoulders and neck tighten until my head fills with lead. The muscles around my ribcage restrict like a vice, prohibiting full breaths and weighing me down. It’s as if the weight of the world descends onto my shoulders and the force buries me in the ground up to my waist — it leaves me feeling heavy and immobile," she explains.
8. "My speech changes"
"The most noticeable thing about my panic attacks is my speech changes," says Bella, a stripper. "I jumble my words, slow my speech, stutter, and literally choke on my words. I often feel the need to explain myself, but talking sometimes is physically impossible."
9. "It's a match that takes forever to burn out"
"Anxiety is an uninvited guest. It forces me not to breathe, and leaves me gasping for air," says Lauren, a florist. "I'm always scared I'm going to die, but I won't. It's a match that takes forever to burn out — it's not done, even though I want it to be. The weight of my own heart and mind feel like bricks I have to carry over my back. I wish they would both disappear, but I'm still growing," she explains.
10. "[It] looks like snippy b*tching"
"I'm one of those people whose anxiety attacks looks like snippy b*tching," says Kat, an office administrator. "Whenever I'm even remotely aggressive, there's a 90 percent chance it's actually a panic attack."
While panic attack symptoms may vary from one person to the next, they are all legitimate and deserve to be taken seriously. If you experience panic attacks and are looking for help, talk to your primary care physician about your experiences, and ask if they can help you find a dedicated mental health care expert. Remember that even though panic attacks feel awful, they eventually end — and you're not alone in this, either.