What a Panic Attack Feels Like
I wanted to write about what a panic attack feels like to help people understand the severity of the mental illness and how it affects my life. Including the travel limitations it can inflict in addition to the every challenges. Writing this post about what happened to me was difficult, and it brought out a lot of emotions as I was writing. But it’s time to talk about it, I can no longer stay silent and hide my chronic illnesses out of fear of judgement, prejudice, or discrimination. I struggle everyday to win the internal battle my mental illnesses raging within me.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder is on the severe end of the anxiety disorder spectrum. But on the severe side… My panic attacks personally happen anywhere, at anytime, unexpectedly, and don’t need a “trigger” for the attack to happen. With no warning of the onset, it makes the disorder extremely difficult to manage. So what exactly is panic disorder? what does a panic attack feel like?
An abrupt feeling of terror washes over you when there is no real danger. It’s the feeling that you are losing control of your mind, your body, and yourself. It feels like you’re dying. Your brain is telling you, you’re dying! But it’s not just “feelings”. A panic attack also has physical symptoms, which fuels the panic that you’re dying, symptoms such as:
- Racing heartbeat
- Severe chest or stomach pain
- Breathing difficulty, not being able to breathe
- Weakness, dizziness, confusion
- Feeling hot or a cold chill sometimes going from one to the other and back. Or feeling both hot/cold at the same time.
- Tingly or numb hands & limbs
Quality of Life
Aside from the physical and mental pain that an attack has on your body- after you recover, you’re terrified at what happened. Everyday I fear that another attack will consume me. I often avoid places where past attacks have happened, especially in public places- like an airport. I once sat on an airport bench in LAX for almost an hour during a panic attack. Unable to move, feeling like I would throw up at any minute, with blurred vision. How could I go through TSA like that? I barely made my flight as I pushed through the panic and disconnected mentally from my physical being.
For some people, the fear of another attack takes over their lives and they cannot leave their homes. The disorder is more common in women than men and can start to develop as a young adult. Most people can get better with cognitive therapy treatment and medication, but there is no cure. So my question to you reader is this-
On a scale of 1-10 how severe do you consider panic disorder to be?
Not Severe 1 – 10 Disabling
Remember that number.
The following story, is from my most recent panic attack experience. It was the most severe attack I’ve ever had, lasting for almost 2.5 hours. I woke up the morning after, and wrote down my account as best I could before I no longer remembered. I sat down at my computer with my eyes closed, and went back to the night before, just typing as the words came to me. There were two times where I needed to take a break and stop writing because of the tears that came with it. This is what I wrote, unedited. So … welcome to my head.
**TRIGGER WARNING** The following contains potentially distressing content. Reader discretion is advised.
What a Panic Attack Feels Like
Logan and I had pizza friday, and were watching how to train your dragon we were almost to the end, and there was a scene where the dragons and humans were flying through the clouds, popping in and out of sight. i started to get nauseous, not understanding why, bad pizza? i laid my head back and closed my eyes as i just listened. a few minutes later the nausea got worse, and i began feeling like i was overheating. i had to cool my body temperature down, something wasn’t right. i laid on the bathroom tile, thinking i was going to be sick with food poisoning, still trying to cool down my rapidly growing temperature. it wasn’t working, my nausea and the stomach pain were getting worse.
i go outside onto the deck in the 40 degree cool winter night, and sat in a t-shirt, sweatpants, and no socks while I sit there for what felt like just minutes. Today Logan said it was more like 30-45 minutes. Logan came out to check and see if i was cold, or wanted to come inside. I wasn’t. i was enjoying the cool breeze on my face, and the comfort that the darkness was bringing as I stared out into the nothingness.
this is where my memories begin to fade, and i begin to come in and out of consciousness. i lay outside on the deck just repeating over and over to logan that my stomach hurt and something was wrong. he brought me my anti nausea medication upon my request, and sat outside with me in his winter jacket and outdoor clothing. i lay there helpless, in pain, terrified, and unable to move for fear that if i open my eyes, the nausea will return.
now i’m inside on the kitchen floor because I’m freezing and shivering. logan tells me i need to back away from the door because mia (our dog) is outside and she needs to come in. ok i say. nothing happens, i cant open my eyes, all i feel is fear, and pain. something isn’t right i say. on all fours, i drag myself further into the kitchen, trying to make it to the couch.
the pain becomes so bad i collapse and start to cry. just laying there being afraid, of what i didn’t know. i couldn’t get up. it wasn’t safe. my leg started shaking, and it felt as if i was having convulsions from my toes up to my thigh, at the same time the pain in my stomach becomes unbearable and i cry out in pain as i fight through the wave of pain trying not to pass out.
my breathing starts to slow, it’s going slower, slower, more shallow. logan, somethings not right. somethings wrong with me i tell him. i can’t breathe. can you google my symptoms? i think i’m dying. can you find out whats wrong? please, i beg him. the convulsions start again, and i’m gone once more, lost in the pain. the pain of my legs from shaking uncontrollably, the pain of it going up and into my stomach, making it cramp so bad i thought it might be period cramps or kidney stones.
Chels i dont know whats wrong, i dont know whats happening. sheer terror brings a cold chill down my whole body, and i begin to shake, and shiver. what’s wrong with me repeats in my head as a loop. i ask logan again, whats wrong with me? …i don’t know sweetheart, did you google my symptoms? not yet sweetie, i don’t know what you want me to google.
i think i have the coronavirus. i think i’m dying. i cant breathe.. i cant open my eyes, all i feel is pain. everything hurts. i think i’m dying. i tell him. my breathing slows again, and i get a reprieve from the pain coursing through my veins. i’m laying halfway in between the living room and the kitchen now. i open my eyes, and look into his for the first time. i think i’m having a panic attack, i tell him. i need my medicine, i don’t want to die. which medicine? he asks.
chels…chelsea… i feel him touch me…which medicine chels? i don’t remember. why is he asking about medicine? whats happening to me i ask him. i think you’re sick honey, he says. i start to cry again, my time has come, i’m not ready to die i cry. I think we need to take you to the hospital, logan says. whats the hospital? i ask. “the fact that you don’t know what a hospital is, makes me certain we need to take you in, you’re sick sweetheart.”
this is it. my time has come. i didn’t think i’d die this young. they say death sneaks up on us. am i dying? i ask him. no, no you’re not dying, we just need to get you to the hospital. what’s a hospital? i’m so confused. its where people go when they’re sick. but i’m not sick, i’m’ not i tell him. just let me rest here. just let me close my eyes, i just need to go to sleep. did you get my medicine? no…you still need to tell me what one
babe.. i think i’m having a panic attack, i tell him. can you get me my medicine? babe…i beg him, please. please make it go away. something is wrong. something isn’t right. what’s happening to me? you’re sick sweetheart.. xanax i say. i need my xanax, i think i’m having a panic attack. i feel him get up. which cupboard are they in? the cupboard downstairs. where babe, which cupboard, i’m downstairs, open your eyes. i can’t… the light. please turn the light off. i’m not ready. I’m not ready to leave you. I don’t want to die.
the pain starts. i roll into a ball trying to stop it, but i feel it coming, my legs begin shaking again, and it continues up up into my stomach, into my head. im gone. is it ok to take the medicine with the other one you took? i don’t know. i say. i don’t know. i fall asleep. babe…wake up, take your medicine. where is it i ask? its in your hand, its still in your hand. ok. its ok if i take it? yes, he says, go ahead and take it. ok. i fall asleep.
chels.. c’mon. lets go to the hospital. whats the hospital? what happens there? is it because i’m dying? i have the coronavirus dont i? i start crying, i cant breathe again. Logan tries to calm me, no, no you don’t have the virus. you might have food poisoning. i fade out again. still laying on the floor, i open my eyes not knowing how much time had passed. everything is foggy, but I see his face. chels i think it’s time to go to the hospital. what’s a hospital? i ask him once again. i think i’m having a panic attack. let me sleep. let me just sleep and i’ll be ok.
chels.. you’re sick. this isn’t normal, you can’t tell me what a hospital is. he’s right. what is a hospital. i don’t wanna go there. he gets up and i grab hold of his arm as the terror shoots through me again, begging him to please whatever he does- please don’t leave me. The pain is coming, my eyes water as my legs begin shaking again, i’m so nauseous. he gets up and turns a light on, NOOOO i yell. please no!! please turn it off. It hurts me. Why don’t you try and throw up he says… i cant. i cant do it. why not? its not allowed. i just cant do it. did you get my medicine?
i look into my hand, it’s not there- did you get my medicine? yes chels… you took it awhile ago, it was in your hand. are you sure? I ask. it’s not there. it’s time to go chels. where are we going? the hospital. whats the hospital i ask him again. wait… i’ve asked him this before. i know it. logan- did i ask you that already? yes, a couple times he says. but i don’t remember. am i looping again? i can’t remember anything. it’s just darkness. i try to remember what a hospital is. what it means to be sick. i’m dying. you’re dying, i tell myself. he wants me to go there so they can save me, but it’s too late. i’m fading. i fall asleep.
come on chels, its time. no… no please, let me stay just a little longer. i don’t want to die yet. i open my eyes and all i can see is logan’s face. i look into his eyes, i hear the dogs whining around me, they know too i think. ok.. ok what he says? ok we can go to the hospital. i don’t want to die yet. he helps me get up and i walk for the first time into the living room to put my shoes on. i’m at the door, and the light goes on. panic.
no. no no no no no. turn it off. turn it off i say. i’m on the couch in a ball, with my eyes closed and the pain coming back full force. please shut them off, they’re hurting me. there’s going to be lots of lights at the hospital he says… the lights won’t hurt you. the darkness feels good. whats the hospital? i ask confused. that’s where we’re going he said, put your shoes on ok? ok. i can do that. i get up and put my shoes on. the light turns on. i crumble to the floor right where i stood. crying, begging, please no.. please just please keep the light off. it hurts me. it’s killing me.
that’s why we’re going to the hospital logan says, where are your cards? where are all your medical cards? on my desk. are they all here he asks? yes, those are them. WAIT. no… no i say. we can’t go. i dont have insurance. i can’t go to the emergency. call an ambulance instead. but i can’t go to the hospital. he tries helping me up again to go.
no… no. am i sick? i ask again. yes… you’re sick sweetheart. so this isn’t normal? no.. am i sick like grandma Quida was? i ask him, am i going to be with her now? the light scares me. i’m not ready. i’m not ready to go towards the light. i can’t leave you. no… you’re not sick like grandma Quida he said.. you’re just sick, and need a doctor.
i’ll go upstairs i say. i’ll go upstairs and sleep in the bed. is that normal? yes..that’s normal. but i think we should still go to the hospital, he said. the lights. no… no i’m not sick, i promise. if i make it upstairs, do we have to go to the hospital?
if you make it upstairs and fall asleep/start feeling better, we don’t have to go. ok. ok..ok. i can do that. “can you turn off all the lights?” they’re off sweetheart. no… no there’s still a light i can see it. “that’s a candle, you won’t be able to get upstairs in the dark.
panic. i can’t… i can’t go. please make all the light go away. the blinds too. the windows. the candle. all the light. i won’t make it up there unless it’s gone. i start to fall asleep again. they’re off – he says. it’s dark now.. can i help you upstairs? i open my eyes, its dark. it’s safe now.
yes. yes, can you help me upstairs? i’m in bed now. “is this normal?” i ask him. is what normal? me. me being in bed like this and going to sleep. that’s ok? yes he says. i can go to sleep? yes. What will happen? i won’t wake up will i. panic. i don’t want to die. i want to wake up. “you’ll go to sleep, and then wake up” he says. he’s lying. i know i’m dying, he’s too scared to admit it. “will you stay with me until i fall asleep?” yes. i’ll stay.
i woke up this morning and every inch of my body hurt. an aching hurt, like when you over do it at the gym. something bad happened last night, and i just want to sleep. i’m so tired. i’m exhausted. i can’t keep my eyes open. logan brought me some coffee, and laid with me, rubbed my back – and i began to relax again, falling back to sleep. i’m awake now, fully alert. remembering and recounting what happened. i think it’s important to write this down. it needs to be shared.
it wasn’t just me that was terrified, and cold with fear. Logan watched me, helped me, took care of me, and saw what happened to me. he watched for hours, as the loops, pain, terror, and death consumed me. he watched, and could do nothing to stop it. i can only imagine what it must have been like for him. its not fair. its not fair to either of us. for me to live with these brain diseases. this was one of the worst panic attacks i’ve had in months. it came out of nowhere – blindsiding me. slowly taking over control of not just my body, but my mind. until eventually, i wasn’t there anymore. me. chelsea. my essence. it just wasn’t there.
So i’ll ask you again – on a scale of 1-10 how severe do you consider panic disorder to be?
Not Severe 1 – 10 Disabling
If you or someone you know struggles with Panic Disorder, or other mental health illnesses- talk about it. Don’t be afraid, it’s time.
My younger sister is reaching the same age that I was when my mental health illnesses took a decline, and became unbearable. I recognize the pain in her eyes, the confusion, and the desperate need for help. I sought help, but it would be 7 years before I received the correct diagnosis, and treatment.
A month before my panic attack, my sister was in the hospital, when I spoke with her partner he explained what happened. Memory loss. Unable to speak. Unable to move. Pain. Paralysis. She was cleared from the hospital a few hours after her arrival. Diagnosis? Panic attack. She is now receiving the help she needs, and her mental health is improving as we fight this hereditary illness together.
Don’t keep the pain locked inside to consume you.
Being sick is not your fault. It doesn’t matter if it’s the flu, depression, panic disorder, or cancer- you did not choose this, to be sick. Don’t let others make you feel ashamed, or like “it’s all in your head”. Those people are ignorant, and you know the truth. Keep fighting, it won’t be this bad forever, and the world needs you.
Recommended Read: “My Guide To Managing Multiple Mental Illnesses” by Beyond the Blues