This is a topic close to my heart. I’ve had more than enough panic attacks to last me a lifetime. At my worst stage I reckon I was having up to 5 full-blown attacks a day, and spending many hours in a highly anxious, pre-attack state. I’m going to do my best here to explain what it’s like having a panic attack. Symptoms and experiences vary from person to person, but I think my experience is fairly typical.
I hope that this will also be useful if you know someone who lives with panic attacks, as you may feel pretty useless when they’re in the midst of terror. So here is my non-exhaustive list of symptoms complete with ridiculous pictures, because pictures are fun, obviously: This often exacerbates negative thought spirals, as you genuinely believe you can’t breath. Often occurs with images of passing out, or dying. Sometimes I get this feeling. It’s a bit like when you can’t swallow something properly (pieces of apple skin anyone?
). Always cranks the panic up a notch or 10. Again, images of choking to death/dying are conjured up. Nothing gets a sweat on quite like a panic attack. Costs us anxious folk a fortune in B.O. basher – i suggest this chap invests, or at least changes that shirt.
Ewwww. Often one of the first things to hit me is sudden dizziness. This evokes images of passing out/falling over. Guaranteed to ramp up the panic. One of my big fears is passing out.
In a cruel twist, my panic attacks make me feel exactly like that is about to happen. Don’t worry, you can’t possibly pass out with that much adrenaline pumping round your body, but panic attacks are bloody good at tricking you into feeling like it! For a while I was obsessed with this idea that if I didn’t keep really well hydrated I would pass out. Panic attacks can bring on a dry mouth. My brain would jump straight from dry mouth to fainting, and I used to fall for this trick over and over again.
Now this one is a truly horrible symptom. You get that feeling in the pit of your stomach, like you just know something is badly wrong. It’s hard to doubt a feeling that strong. But this is just another clever trick of the mind. You won’t die.
Remember, this is a survival instinct. Wouldn’t have served much of an evolutionary purpose if it killed you right? ! Bit of a strange one this. Used to tap straight into my fear of dying of a heart attack.
I mean tingling fingers, sweating, feeling of dread. Google them and you’ll convince yourself it’s a heart attack. Now either I’ve survived 50+ heart attacks, or these were panic attacks… Apparently this symptom is caused by blood rushing away from extremities as part of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Sometimes during panic attacks your symptoms can feel so intense and out of your control that you feel detached from the situation. I find this picture actually describes it way better than words!
I sometimes try and describe this as ‘feeling far away’. This sense of detachment is known as depersonalisation. Being detached from the situation does not make the panic attack less frightening. I actually find it actually makes the experience more confusing and disorientating. So… I think those are the main ones (forgive me if I missed any really obvious symptoms).
Please comment if you want me to cover additional symptoms and I will do my best to find suitably daft images to go with them. And just to whet the appetites of the scientifically-minded/curious among you, I will be discussing the science of panic attacks in a future post.