I had my first panic attack when I was 21. I was out shopping. Suddenly the lights seemed too bright, everything started to pulse slightly and I felt really nauseated. I ended up falling to my knees and fainting in the mother-and-baby aisle of a pharmacy.
Winningly, when I came round I was covered in boxes of breast pumps.
I had several “episodes” after that, but because they were so physiological I didn’t realised they were panic attacks until my doctor diagnosed me with panic disorder. By then, though, I was deep in a spiral of anxiety and soon I couldn’t leave the house without fainting.
I had developed severe agoraphobia. The anxiety was so constant that I couldn’t eat so I lost two stone. I experimented abortively with antidepressants, started psychotherapy, and embarked on a gruelling programme of deliberately going into situations that induced panic attacks on a daily basis to try and inure myself against them.
In total it took me four years and two relapses to get to a point where I could go back to work. But it worked. I now travel freely and haven’t experienced an acute panic attack for years, although I do suffer with depression and generalised anxiety.
Personally, I found knowing what’s physically happening during an attack, some useful hacks – plus being aware of the fact that it will pass – helped me to get through an attack.
But what I could really have used back then were other people’s experiences of panic and anxiety, and knowing that I wasn’t on my own in this struggle. So that’s why I collated these stories for anyone who might be going through something similar.
It feels as if the world is rushing at me. Noises become very pronounced and it makes my head swim. Sometimes I can find it difficult to focus, sometimes I feel disoriented. My heart rate soars and I become very aware of my breathing.
I sometimes have pins and needles in my hands or a sudden tension across my shoulders. Other times I feel an intense bolt of fear, which makes me want to move away but roots me to the spot. My attacks pass quickly but arrive with no warning.
I know they go away eventually, so this takes a little of the edge off the attacks.
It’s varied at different times in my life. I remember being a teenager in a Game store, and I didn’t feel panicked at all, but suddenly I just couldn’t see. Then, of course, I panicked! I sat down outside and things went back to normal, but that was pretty terrifying for a while.
At other times I know what’s set me off – stress and worrying, thoughts racing, not being able to get out of your own little bubble even though you know that’s what you’re doing. Or some emotional trauma.
I think “panic attack” is a misnomer. It suggests the panic is what starts it off, but the panic itself can result from something unidentified, too.
After 25 years of dealing, I have tried to explain this to a fair few people. Some people think “anxiety” means “worrying”, but my attacks manifest with very pronounced physical effects – vertigo, shaking, a racing pulse and lightheadedness.
It doesn’t creep up on me, I’m just right in the middle of it before I know it and it’s kind of too late then. It’s hot and feels like I’m going to pass out, and I just need to get out of wherever I currently am. Usually a train carriage.
I can normally tell it’s a panic attack afterwards because once I’ve established that I’m “safe” or out of wherever it was that I was, I feel the same – cold sweat, heart beating really fast, and basically a sense that I want to be crying and not visible.
But I’ve come to recognise how I feel and when it’s a panic attack happening. I can sort of talk myself down from it, at least for long enough so I can get myself somewhere safe and relaxed.
I remember my first panic attack very well. I was going through a difficult breakup and had just landed at Heathrow. I was walking along and suddenly the lights seemed very bright and it seemed like there were an awful lot of people. I felt tiny and vulnerable, like any one of those people could harm me if they wanted to. My knees turned to jelly immediately and I collapsed sobbing on the side of the corridor. I was hyperventilating and I thought I was dying.
It came out of nowhere and I had never experienced anything like it before.
From that time onward I began to worry constantly about every small detail of life, from the moment I left the house. I’d be waiting at the bus stop having internal conversations with myself about what position I was in in the queue and what would happen if I couldn’t get on the bus – I’d be late and lose my job and be totally screwed.
All of that stuff happened first thing in the morning, every morning, and continued for every small detail you can imagine throughout the day, so I stopped going out except for work.
What works for me is to accept that I am having a panic attack, to notice and acknowledge the way I feel without judging it to be bad, to breathe the way my body seems to want to breathe for any given breath, and to think about what triggers in the environment might have contributed to the way that I feel in the moment.
I now accept panic as part of my own normal range of reactions to certain things, and for me that has been the key to living a more normal life. When I think back to even my childhood I was always a worrier and experienced a lot of anxiety without really identifying it as such.
So, while I still feel panicked sometimes, I don’t beat myself up about it, which is what previously made things worse.
My heart feels like it trying to push its way out of my chest and the world around me blurs. I often feel like I’m dying and it hurts to breathe. I sometimes hear a pulsing in my head, which seems to flow through my entire body. I always cry and need to pace around, which probably just makes it worse.
I’ve recently had a number of attacks at work. These have been followed by me feeling sure everyone thinks I’m insane leading to shame and embarrassment. One of my attacks led me to faint, waking up 20 minutes later in a disabled toilet with a pounding headache and no knowledge of where I was.
The first time I had a panic attack I immediately thought I was having a heart attack.
My heartbeat just escalated from nowhere and my thoughts straightaway were that I was going to die and either needed to get to a hospital or, that if it was true that I was going to die, I needed to do it somewhere where it wasn’t going to be public and embarrassing (this was at a Blur gig in Birmingham NEC so my options were limited).
A lot of it was to do with embarrassing myself in public, to be honest. Even once I’d realised panic attacks probably wouldn’t kill me, being sick in public was definitely a fear. And, though I was told that if I hyperventilated the worst thing that would happen is that I’d faint, the idea of fainting in public was so embarrassing that it just made it worse.
The “comedown” (that doesn’t seem an appropriate word but can’t think of a better one) which follows an attack is almost as bad as the attack itself. A dreadful fusion of depression, exhaustion, despair, self-pity, and humiliation. Urgh.
Eventually got diagnosed with acute generalised anxiety disorder. As I started to feel a bit better and the idea of possibly being able to socialise again loomed, I knew that the only way it could possibly happen was to confront the panic attacks and anxiety, and get out there.
You have a constant feeling of unease. Like a haze at the back of your head and a prickling in the middle of your chest. It’s OK. You’re used to it. Most of the time it’s background noise.
Then suddenly, for some reason or no reason at all, the prickles in your chest get sharper and your head gets foggier. Your heart pounds faster as it tries to defend itself from impending danger and your breathing becomes shallow as you desperately try to get air into your body and your brain. Your throat constricts and your chest contracts and your heart almost bursts from your chest and your head is hammering and you try to grasp onto something, anything, to keep you tethered and whole.
Your entire body is feeling everything and nothing all at once and you just want to jump out of your skin, get away from this feeling, get it away from yourself. Get yourself back.
Panic attacks for me are like really heightened version of feeling anxious. I can feel it building up, going from feeling anxious and jittery with all the feelings that go with that to the point where I can’t physically cope with how I’m feeling.
I start by having very clear, defined, worried thoughts and then my brain starts going fuzzy, because I’m thinking so fast that I can’t keep hold of it. Then my heart starts going really fast, like it’s buzzing or humming rather than beating. You know the feeling you get when you miss a step going downstairs? Well, it’s like someone hollows out my entire chest and replaces it with that feeling with this crazy buzzing heart in the middle.
I tend to get waves of hot and cold nausea going over me alternately at this point, which makes me spontaneously sweat like crazy, and my stomach twists and my hands shake. I feel like I can’t breathe and I become dizzy and lightheaded. I can’t keep upright when it gets to this stage – I feel like all the blood drains from my face and I worry I’m going to faint or collapse.
My first attack was seven years ago. I simply woke up, thought about going to work, and then it felt like a huge blanket fell over me and started suffocating me.
I didn’t understand what was happening, and started crying because the thought of trying to get up and go to work, face people and pretend it was all OK simply felt like the most terrifying thing in the world.
I called my GP and he calmed me down a little and said to rest a bit and if I feel better after, come and see the specialist they had. The psychiatrist I went to see later that day was very supportive and explained to me what was happening.
I was suffering from mild depression at that time but this was something else, the whole thing felt really extreme.
I was sitting my finals at university. While reading the questions, I briefly contemplated the possibility of failing the paper, and that’s when the panic attack hit. I felt my boxer shorts go wet. I didn’t piss myself, I “sweated myself”…or rather, I “cold-sweated myself”. Breathing got erratic and I started losing balance while still seated.
I remember dropping my pen on the desk, closing my eyes and trying to tell myself that it was going to be OK. I pressed my index fingers onto my shut eyelids and massaged my eyeballs. When I’d calmed down a bit, I went to the bathroom, rinsed my face…and that’s about it I think.
–Khalil A. Cassimally
I am drowning. It doesn’t matter where I was a few seconds ago; maybe I was doing some work in my office, maybe I was walking through a crowded subway station, or maybe I was just hanging out at home – but now I feel like I’m under 1,000 feet of water.
I notice the physical signs first. My heart is beating too heavily, its rhythm somehow irregular but much too fast. The muscles in my arms and legs tense painfully, my hands begin to shake, suddenly I forget how to breathe. Each breath is a struggle, each inhale or exhale more difficult than the last.
The outside world crashes into my consciousness. Even with my eyes shut and my head in my hands, every perception is completely overwhelming. There are entirely too many things happening all at once.
Every thought is pervaded by an overwhelming feeling of failure. At the bottom, I can’t see outside the panic and the panic seems to last for an eternity. But then slowly, very slowly, everything recedes and I’m left dreading the next attack.
When I have an attack I feel like my brain has left my body, the two just do not connect. I feel like I’m floating and then the stuttering starts. I just can’t get a coherent sentence out.
Then, my brain goes into “spiderweb” mode – a million thoughts, mostly panicky, just start rolling and spreading. All this happens while I’m trying to speak and just stuttering sounds are coming out. God, these are the worst. They usually last for about 10 minutes.
I have to try to calm myself down, which feels impossible. But there is always an end in sight.
My panic attacks are usually brought on by agoraphobia. For a very long time, I would avoid crowded places. With medication, I’ve managed to keep this under control for the past tow years. They still happen, but a lot less frequently.
Everything is usually fine. I can be sat talking with a friend about nothing in particular or reading a book on the train or walking or something. Then suddenly I become hyper vigilant. I’m instantaneously aware of everything and everyone in the world and all of it is a threat.
Everything is so clear, so bright, so harsh, and so defined it’s as though it is in high definition. My legs respond instantly to this new reality and they feel bowed. I can be sitting or even lying down but the weakness in my legs will always come. They feel incredibly light and tingly. It’s a floaty feeling that perhaps I could enjoy, if I wasn’t starting to shake and if everything didn’t seem so artificially bright and smooth and defined.
On rare occasions my mouth starts to fill with the sour water you get when you’re going to throw up.
Sometimes, a less severe form of panic attack occurs where I just get a very tight chest, a pain shooting through my sternum, but none of the other accompanying feelings of fear and helplessness. Most of the time though, I’m just quaking, my throat tight, my legs rubbery, and all the while I’m struggling to breath properly and looking around trying to find a way out. (I’m usually triggered by “confined spaces” but the meaning of that term can vary from lifts and train carriages to the cinema or a lecture theatre.)
It takes about 20 minutes for the physical symptoms to subside and within an hour they’re gone completely. Emotionally though, I’m usually a wreck for at least the rest of the day. I feel ashamed and sad and still a little bit scared for a while but eventually it subsides.
The worst symptom was what felt like electric voltage coursing through me from head to toe. When I would wake a little and remember all the things I had to do that day, my brain would taser me with what I suspect was a fight-or-flight response, and my heart would explode and my body would feel tingly. Only years later when I tried anti-anxiety pills did I realise that shouldn’t be part of my day.
Where some people would get butterflies in their stomach, I had them in my chest. They would crop up when my heart would begin to race, and trying to cajole them into calming down so I could nap (or just fall asleep in general) was like trying to wrestle a monster that exploded into 1,000 pieces.
It took ages to trick my heart into slowing down with various attempts of muscle relaxation and deep breathing. It was all uphill and made me feel so completely helpless. The only way to circumvent the feelings in public were to always, always sit on the edge of a row in lectures or in a movie theatre or plane. Otherwise I was toast.
Physically it starts with my heart rate skyrocketing, I start have trouble breathing, not like I’m suffocating but just feeling like I can’t take a big enough breath to get the air I need. I get sensitive to touch, like I feel that my muscles are weaker like when you have a flu.
And the biggest part is the rush of what I think is adrenaline. It’s that feel like if you’ve ever been in a car accident that you get RIGHT before the collision, when you see it coming. Or when you first start to fall while riding a roller-coaster.
I was at work, doing a mundane task and not thinking about much of anything, when I started to have trouble breathing. When I tried to take a breath, it felt like my lungs were already full. This had happened before and I’d been able to get it under control, so I just tried to relax. But this time it was getting worse, and I wasn’t getting enough air.
I went into a meeting. After a few minutes, I started to feel faint and shaky. I started to feel like my heart was fluttering, like the beats were irregular. I’d never felt that way before. I made eye contact with my boss and asked him to call me an ambulance. It still hadn’t occurred to me this might be a panic or anxiety attack.
When I arrived at the hospital I’d already started to feel better. The doctors monitored my ECG and took chest x-rays, but eventually discharged me, telling me only that they couldn’t find anything wrong.
No one ever told me that what I experienced was an anxiety or panic attack, but based on the questions the medical staff asked me I knew that was their leading theory, and I’m almost certain that’s what happened.
What’s most surprising to me is that, while I had been going through a stressful time, the cause of that extra stress – a large event I’d been helping to organise – had come to an end days before my attack.
I’ve learned since that it’s not unheard of for people to have attacks after the actual triggering incident has passed, but at the time it didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t consciously aware of being anxious about anything!
I didn’t even feel particularly anxious during the attack. It felt completely physical; like something was being inflicted upon my body. Like my mind was calm, but my heart and lungs and limbs were having the attack on their own.
Generally they begin with shortness of breath. Breathing starts being something that I have to actively control.
This is the make-or-break point. If I can regulate my breathing and bring myself back down to earth, I’m usually in the clear. I’ll try breathing exercises, pound a huge cup of chamomile tea, or, if I’m lucky enough to have one on hand, take a Xanax.
As often as not, though, things begin to spiral out of control. Next comes the lack of focus and lightheadedness, where all of my attention is focused inward. All of my mental resources are devoted to what’s happening in my head. I can’t read at this point, I can’t focus on TV, and I can’t hold a conversation.
Worst is if it happens while I’m driving; all I can do is try to keep an even distance from the car ahead of me and pull over to the shoulder if it gets too bad. After that comes the point where I start to think, “Oh my god, this is it, all the other times have been panic attacks but this time is different, i’m actually going to die this time,” and I’m completely consumed.
Throughout all of this, my heart is pounding in my chest so hard that you can actually see it in my stomach. I’ve never fainted, but there have been times when it would have been a mercy, nights when sleeplessness turned into six or seven hours of helpless fear. I’ve driven myself to the ER more than once, with nothing to show except a bill I can’t afford and a tiny bottle of benzodiazepines that I ration like it was the last canteen of potable water on earth.
Here’s something that has helped me. When it first started, I would look my symptoms up on the internet, which led to scary results like “congenital heart failure”, “emphysema”, “stroke”, or “brain tumour”. Now I append the word “anxiety” to whatever I’m experiencing.
So, for example, I’ll search “shortness of breath anxiety,” “limb pain anxiety,” or even something as weird as “feel like i have to burp all the time anxiety.” Without fail this has brought up a dozen other people who have dealt with the same symptoms and received the same diagnosis.
A panic attack makes you feel like you’re going to die; knowing that other people have gone through the same thing and survived is very, very helpful.