Mental Wealth: What panic attacks really feel like

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Photo Credit: Mel Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Panic attacks are no joke. My last panic attack was over three years ago, and in spite of the time that has elapsed, I still feel a chill down my spine when remembering what they were like.

When the panic attacks first started, it felt like they hit me like a train and I never knew when an attack would sneak up on me. There was no guarantee where I would be when one
would happen.

Panic attacks used to leave me dumbfounded, but as I got more used to having them, I began to notice that they followed a set of stages that could help me to predict when a panic attack would hit me.

The “Heart Attack”

The first stage with my panic attacks was very similar to an anxiety attack, and if I had never had a panic attack before, would have thought it was
exactly, and only, that. It felt like I was having a heart attack. My chest felt so tight I would hunch over and clutch it. Believe it or not, for me, this is the easiest stage to endure.

The Rabbit Hole

The next stage of my panic attacks centered around my thoughts. This is the point when fear would really kick in. I would start to notice what was about to happen and become scared of the panic attack I knew was right around the corner. It would consume my mind, and the fear would slowly become the only thing I could focus on. This is also the last stage that I would have been functional enough to get myself to a safe place.

Fight or Flight 

This is the panic attack. This is the stage in which fight or flight fully takes over and left me rocking back and forth on the ground where I was standing. This is the stage that broke me every time. Here, I felt like I was dying — not figuratively dying, like people will say when something is funny. I actually felt like I was going to die. It’s not something easily explained because, from a logical standpoint, obviously I won’t die during a panic attack, but that’s what it felt like. And it hurt. My chest hurt, my muscles hurt, my eyes hurt, my skin hurt. The level of fear I experienced in this stage was the most intense thing I have ever felt.

The Defeat 

The final stage of my panic attacks was always the most emotional. After the actual fear subsided, my muscles would release and I would collapse in a heap on the floor and just cry. After a panic attack, the exhaustion would often cause me to sink into a deep depression and actually led to me to attempt to take my own life.

Everyone experiences panic attacks differently, but learning the ways in which your attacks manifest themselves can help you implement coping mechanisms.

One way to cope with the onset of panic attacks more effectively is find some grounding techniques to bring you back to reality. For me, finding comforting scents, having a stress ball readily available and creating a playlist specifically for my anxiety helped me to lessen the intensity of a panic attack that was about to occur and helped me focus on something other than the fear I was experiencing.

After two years of having panic attacks everyday, I was unable to imagine a life without them, and the only way out seemed to be suicide. Today, it has been three years since my last panic attack and it wouldn’t have been possible without recognizing the stages and learning what keeps me grounded in reality.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, feeling distressed, or thinking about suicide, the Counseling and Mental Health Center Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for confidential service. Call 512-471-2255.