Have you ever wondered what a panic attack feels like?
Because believe me I can tell you. I have dealt with them and with anxiety in general for decades. Here’s what a panic attack has often felt like to me:
You’re fine. You’re walking down the street, the same street as any other day. Maybe it’s a nice day. Maybe the temperature is just that perfect midpoint between cold and hot. A gentle breeze might blow past you. You’re in a relatively good mood. You feel happy, you don’t have anything in particular on your mind. Maybe you’re even listening to music while you walk.
You go into the store because you need to buy toilet paper, or maybe you need diapers, or hell, you just decided to go pick up some chocolate bars as a treat for your kids. You’re walking down the aisle and all of a sudden something changes. Someone else may not have noticed the change but you’re so familiar with this sensation that you can’t help but feel it immediately. You realize that your heart rate has accelerated. Not a lot. Nothing that makes you break your stride but it’s definitely faster.
You frown because you know what that usually means, but you force yourself to keep thinking about what you came here for, or to concentrate on the music in your ears, or to look at the labels on the products you’re passing.
Except nothing is distracting you as you realize that your heart rate is not slowing down, it’s not even staying at the status quo: It’s getting faster. And a little faster. And then too fast. It feels like you’ve been exercising hard, the way it used to feel when you did aerobics at the gym or how it used to pound after a good, solid two-hour kung fu workout. The problem is you haven’t been exercising hard; you didn’t even break a sweat walking to the store. Your heart is not pounding because of exertion. You know exactly why it’s pounding, thudding, thundering in your chest, your throat, your ears.
You decide to start taking long, slow breaths, only you have to fight to do it because as soon as you consciously think of your breathing you realize that for the past 60 seconds it’s been coming too fast, too shallow. You force yourself to fill your lungs with air, hold it, and release it. You keep inhaling again before you’ve completely exhaled no matter how hard you try to control it.
You get to the shelf holding whatever you wanted to buy. Maybe you had to think hard to even remember what it was that you needed so badly because all you want to do is breathe properly and slow your heart back down before an artery bursts. You quickly grab what you need.
You carry on through the store, searching for the other things on your list. You realize you’re sweating. It’s not very hot out, but you feel like the sun is all of ten feet away. You open your jacket or push up your sleeves, wishing it was appropriate to strip down completely to cool off as much as possible.
You try to swallow and realize your throat is dry, too dry and you nearly gag. For a second you feel like whatever’s in your stomach is going to make a rapid exit up and out onto the floor. You breathe, breathe, breathe, reminding yourself to slow down. But everything is fast. Your heart is too fast, your lungs are expanding and constricting too fast. Your feet start matching their pace. Your brain says something is wrong and by god you had better keep moving or there’s going to be trouble. As long as you keep moving, just moving, you’ll be fine.
You’re still trying to swallow, still trying to convince lunch to stay where it is. You feel like everything is too tight so you start tugging on the neckline of your sweater, trying to pull it away from your neck where it’s clearly squeezing you and trying to choke you.
As you grab the last of what you need, you do an abrupt 180 and head for the nearest cash as quickly as you can. As you race past the displays, past people, past posters on the walls you wonder why everything is so surreal. Faces are too bright. Everything is too bright. You feel like someone has adjusted the color intensity on your surroundings and everything is just a little too over-saturated.
You get in line and curse that there are two people in front of you, why the other cash isn’t open. You breathe, you breathe, you mutter to yourself under your breath, reassuring yourself that you’re okay, you’re fine, you’re nearly there, if you can just get out that damn door it will all be right again. Sounds explode in your ears. You wonder why everyone is talking so loud. Everything is amplified, as though everyone around you is speaking directly into your ears, into your brain.
You’re closer now, only one person in front of you. Things go just a little blurry, they way they look when you first wake up and can’t quite focus. You try to stop yourself from swaying and realize that it’s actually your head spinning. The customer in front of you leaves. It’s your turn. You just need to act like a normal person and then you can get out.
You all but throw your purchases on the counter and start fishing immediately for your bank card while you wait for the friendly cashier who is too bright and too fuzzy and too loud to ring up the total. You swipe your card and try to make your fingers stop shaking long enough to punch the right numbers.
While you wait for the transaction to complete you notice things aren’t that bright anymore. You might actually even think you were getting back to normal except for the fact that your heart is now racing so quickly that you wonder how it’s still going, and you’re breathing so quickly that you wonder if people can hear you, but surely they can’t because everything is still so goddamn loud. Then you realize that the brightness is fading because your vision is getting dark and fuzzy around the edges and now your head is spinning more and the world is kind of tilting just a little to one side and your stomach is climbing up your esophagus and you’re not sure if you’re going to faint or throw up or maybe do both but you do know that if you don’t grab your card and your bag and get the fuck out of there right this second then something bad is going to happen and you’re trying to count because sometimes counting backwards by threes from three hundred distracts you from things but there’s no distracting this time and you need to leave, leave, leave, now, now, NOW.
And then you’re done and you get through that door as fast as you can without raising suspicion – good lord, no raising suspicions, that would only delay you from getting outside – and you lean against the wall and pretend to be putting your wallet away or looking for something in your bag, but really you’re just trying to inconspicuously gasp for air, you’re trying to remember what number you were counting, and you’re resisting the urge to sit on the ground with your head between your knees.
Then as air starts to surround you, you feel your heart slowly but surely thudding a little more dully than before, gradually winding down. You realize that you can get a full breath into your lungs again. The dizziness is still lingering but you feel the way you used to in college when you’d reach that slightly tipsy but not quite drunk level and you can cope with that. Still trembling a bit, partly from aftershocks and partly because you finally stopped sweating, you start walking towards home. You’re drained so you can’t walk too quickly, but you’re too bruised inside to walk too slowly so you settle for a moderate pace. You can feel traces of a headache seeping into your skull but you don’t mind too much because you know that it means it’s over now.
Later, at home, when everything is normal, when you’re normal again, you think back on it and decide that it was rough but there have been worse times. And you survived. Again. And you will carry on to face it all over again some day. You don’t know when. It could be tomorrow, if you’re lucky it might not be until next week. You wish it would surprise you and never come back, but you know better by now. Regardless, you congratulate yourself for not letting it win this time.
And that is what it’s like to have a panic attack. That is what it’s like in my brain when my fight or flight trigger gets flipped and I have no way to stop it. That is what it’s like to be me on a regular basis.