What a Panic Attack Feels Like

A panic attack can come after a really stressful day or series of days or it can come at the end of a really good day. Whenever I have a panic attack I’m blindsided. They arrive unannounced, unwelcome and wholly unexpected. My panic attacks often start as nausea, I occasionally have bouts of nausea and have a really sensitive stomach, so nausea is not rare for me. Other times a panic attack starts out as some mild heartburn (also not unusual for me).

After a while, nausea or heartburn gives way to dread. This slowly rising feeling that something horrible is about to happen and I’m the only one who knows… the only person anticipating catastrophe. This is usually when I realize that this isn’t indigestion and take a medication my doctor has given me for panic attacks. It takes about 30-60 minutes to kick in, so I still have to sit with the panic attack.

The most painful symptom of my panic attacks is the pressure. Pressure on my chest like my heart and lungs are stuck in a vice. I’ve read other sufferers of panic disorder describe their attacks as feeling like someone is sitting on their chest, I would compare my pain to a hand or several hands squeezing the organs in my chest from within. It’s hard to breathe during these attacks and it feels like my thorax has narrowed and only has space for small sips of air.

My throat feels constricted and tight. I usually have a sore throat and chest the day following a bad panic attack. My throat feels rigid and for some reason, my mouth and throat fill with mucus. Thick, clear mucus that I choke and cough on as I try to expel everything blocking my airways. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning.

During a panic attack, I am often mostly immobilized. I have a hard time breathing but my thoughts are racing. My inner dialogue is a jumbled mass of panicked hypochondriac who knows just enough about the human body to make a fuss. What? WHAT? What!?!!? What is happening? Is this a panic attack? Am I REALLY SURE THAT’S WHAT THIS IS??!?! It’s probably a heart attack. Do I have asthma? I CAN’T BREATHE!

My amazing, patient husband usually sits with me during these attacks, reassuring me that I am not having a heart attack and reminding me to breathe. Sometimes he counts for me while I inhale 1… 2… 3… and exhale 1… 2… 3…. Other times he sits with me and strokes my hair. During really bad attacks he calls my mom and together they convince me that I am not dying.

Eventually, the drugs kick in. They help me relax and make my thoughts slow down. I still feel like my throat is too narrow to breathe but it doesn’t make me panic as much as I get sleepy. Things get foggy and I usually fall asleep and stay asleep for a good eight hours. If I do wake in the night, usually to go to the bathroom, my limbs are heavy and I struggle to keep upright and find my way to the toilet.

When I wake up in the morning following a panic attack (luckily I usually have attacks in the late afternoon or evening and am able to sleep after taking my meds), I am usually sore. My chest feels like someone stomped on it and my throat feels like I spent the night screaming (unfortunately for my patient husband I do spend most of the night snoring post-panic attack). I will feel on edge for a few days following a panic attack. Sometimes I have another attack within a few days. Usually, thankfully, I don’t.

The only time I can anticipate a panic attack is when I’m getting ready to fly. Airports and airplanes make me uncomfortable at best and prior to last year I hadn’t flown anywhere since 2008. Last year I went on three separate trips by plane and even with all of that extra practice I spent hours leading up to the last return trip home in a frantic, panicked state. About 30-60 minutes before a flight, I take my medication. This allows me to sleep through a flight. If I don’t take my medication, I spend the flight frozen, silently crying and fully expecting the plane to go down.

I’m not in any way glad that I experience panic attacks, but I am grateful that I have medication, breathing exercises and family support to help me deal with them. They are thoroughly horrible to experience, but thankfully they are the shortest lived of all the unpleasantries my mood disorders cause.

Make It Ok – Writing About Mental Illness

One of my goals for 2017 is to write more and to write more honestly. Something that I have struggled with since my late teens is depression and anxiety. It’s something I don’t often talk about but I am trying to be more open about. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about (I’m writing that for you, my readers, and to remind myself).

Mental illness has touched my life in many ways. I’ve lost two close friends to suicide and depression and anxiety run in my family.

Having an illness with no visible cause or physical symptoms is frustrating. I had my first panic attack when I was 19 and have struggled with anxiety and depression since my late teens. I wasn’t diagnosed with mild OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) until my late twenties (mostly because I have obsessive thoughts not accompanied by compulsions).

One of the ways to combat the negative stigma surrounding depression is to talk about it. I’ve been listening to The Hilarious World of Depression podcast from American Public Media. The podcast is made possible by HealthPartners and its Make It OK campaign, which works to reduce the stigma of mental health. To do my part I’m going to keep listening to this podcast and I’m going to start writing and talking more about my own mental health. I know that I’m not alone, 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year. I want you to know that you’re not alone either.

My first mental health related post is about panic attacks, something I’ve been dealing with on and off for the past 10 years.

I will continue to talk and write about mental illness this year; I want you to know that even though depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are isolating, you are not alone.