What a Panic Attack Feels Like

My story 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.
Peru; November 2017; 7 days; 2 panic attacks

What does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

I wanted to write about what a panic attack feels like to help people understand the severity of mental illness and how it affects my life. Including the travel limitations, it can inflict in addition to every challenge. 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 judgment, prejudice, or discrimination. I struggle every day to win the internal battle of my mental illnesses raging within me.

I debated if I should start integrating mental health into my travel blog for over a year when I was first diagnosed. Times are changing, faster than anyone ever could have predicted. The travel industry has collapsed these past few weeks with the COVID-19 virus wreaking havoc on the world, and the uncertainty of the future has many of us scared. This is why I think now more than ever, it is so important to start these conversations. Understanding each other’s differences, and working together to overcome adversity will lead us to a brighter future. My name is Chelsea, I have Panic Disorder and this is my story.

On a scale of 1-10, how severe do you consider panic disorder to be?

Not Severe 1 – 10 Disabling Remember that number

Hawaii, Feb 2019, 7 days, 3 panic attacks

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 any time, 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 fuel 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
  • Sweating
  • 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
North Cascades National Park; July 2019; 2 panic attacks

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. Every day 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, felt 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.

Banff National Park Road trip; September 2019; 7 days; 1 panic attack

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.

My Story

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.

Will it ever end?

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, something’s 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.

Panic Disorder is the worst

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.”

The end is near

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.

What is normal?

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. it’s not fair. it’s 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 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.

Working for GM; 7 years; 30+ panic attacks; 3 hospital visit

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.


Nevada; February 2020; 5 days; 0 panic attacks

Pin this post to help others struggling & help create awareness for those that don’t understand the struggle that is mental illness.

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  1. Panic attacks are scary. You may believe you are losing control, suffering a heart attack, or even dying when panic episodes strike. Thank you for producing such an interesting and informative website on stress and anxiety. – Nidra Nutrition

  2. Thank you for opening up, it’s always good to see people share their personal journey as I know a lot of people overlook panic attacks and anxiety as something that is minor and can be controlled when it really can put a huge toll on someone even more when traveling!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and acceptance 🤗 I have been anxious about opening myself up in that way to the public in fear of discrimination, judgement, and lack of acceptance from the travel community – when instead it has been the exact opposite. 💜

  3. Wow, thank you for opening up like this—can’t imagine how difficult it must gave been to put this out there. I struggle with anxiety too but have only had minor panic attacks (many brought on my flying) so I understand how debilitating it can be for traveling. I hope you’re feeling better!

    1. Thank you for your kind words 💜I have been opening up more about my brain diseases to help others that struggle know they are not alone. Stay safe 💜

  4. It’s great to find people like you talking about difficult topics. I find your tips very useful 🙂

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that. It’s not easy writing them and even harder to share them. I’ve dealt with a lot of discrimination since I’ve been more open about it 🙁

  5. I find that mental health isn’t talked about much in the travel community. Panic attacks are rare for me, but most of my life I’ve had crippling anxiety, that I’ve managed for several years with an SSRI. I think it’s so important that more of us discuss our struggles with mental health, because it helps to normalize it, and remind us all that we aren’t alone in what we’re experiencing. Thanks for sharing your story, and tackling an under-discussed subject on your platform.

    1. Thank you for sharing with me, anxiety is difficult no matter what the severity. That makes me so happy to hear your encouragement 😍💜💜I have been debating opening up about my brain diseases since I was diagnosed 14 months ago. I didn’t think people would be interested in the topic surrounding my travel theme, but I needed to share. So others feel safe to do the same, without judgment.

  6. This was such an informative post, thank you for sharing your story! It’s amazing that you are able to overcome your panic attacks and still travel the world. Super inspiring!

    1. I appreciate your support 💜 it’s a difficult topic and it was very hard for me to open up about that personal embarrassing experience 😔but that is the reality of living with a brain disease 🌈

  7. Well done for starting to incorporate panic attacks into your blog. If you hide them then that just adds to the stigma around them. I for one, didn’t really understand the impact or implications of a panic attack, so it’s good to read your first hand account to get a better understanding of it. Keep writing about them … I hope it helps you to share.

    1. That means a lot Jay, I appreciate your support on this topic 💜 it’s hard to explain the severity to healthy brains, because everyone experiences anxiety on one level or another. Each experience is different, my underlining brain diseases amplify the severity to panic disorder vs typical or generalized anxiety. I hope to write more on my brain diseases, but there is a lot of stigma around them – especially my bipolar 2 disease. I will write more, as this post has had a much more positive response than I anticipated. 💜🤗

  8. Unfortunately this is a feeling I know all to well, and I am guessing that there are alot of anxiety-sister out there… I love the way you describe it, informative and correct!

    1. Thank you for your support. I hope that you are healthy and managing your anxiety 💜I wanted to be as open as I could to help healthy brains understand brain diseases as a illness – and not a choice because of behavior.

  9. Thanks for sharing your story Chelsea! Even though Panic Disorder sounds absolutely horrible to deal with, it’s inspiring that you are able to overcome and deal with panic attacks while traveling.

  10. I’m glad you decided to talk about this as I am sure although difficult, just the process of putting it into words must have been liberating and soothing.I did not know about all the physical symptoms that are experienced at the onset of a panic attack and after reading your post, I can certainly get a sense of how terrifying the experience must. We all go through so much in our lives and I agree, it’s important to start such conversations. Thank you for creating more awareness about this through your post.

    1. Thank you Aditi, I want to share my mental illness experiences more so I can help others that are struggling, or those that don’t know about it. I appreciate the kind words, xx

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