What It Actually Feels Like To Have a Panic Attack

by Emily Torres
Simone Beccehtti

It can be a normal day: I could be sitting at the beach, magazine in hand and friends in tow.

It can be a normal evening: I could be sitting and watching "Grey's Anatomy," ogling Jesse Williams and turning away squeamishly whenever there's any fake blood.

It can even be a normal night: I could be passed out in bed, curled under my fluffy comforter with my kitten and snoring away.

And then it hits. No reason. No warning.

It's never a gradual feeling that I can anticipate and try to prevent.

The start of a panic attack feels like a powerful electric volt that rips through my body and sends my heart racing. It's like I've stuck a cord in water or touched an outlet the wrong way and been electrocuted.

A panic attack feels like a powerful electric volt that rips through my body and sends my heart racing.

But instead of the quick zap and tingle, the painful, jittery feeling doesn't go away, and I am left feeling sensitive and full of adrenaline.

Next comes the feeling that my racing heart is on fire. It hurts to swallow and breathe. If I move, it sets off new flames.

This is followed by an incredible tightness in my chest. It's like an elephant is sitting on my chest and I have no physical strength to even try to push it off. I'm stuck with a weight on my body: 500 pounds of invisible pachyderm on my chest.

Inevitably, it becomes hard to breathe.

It's like I've run a marathon or am in anaphylactic shock and can't catch my breath, no matter how still I am. I can only take shallow sips of oxygen and often find myself subconsciously holding my breath for moments – which often feels like years.

I can only take shallow sips of oxygen and often find myself subconsciously holding my breath.

This often leads to an episode of choking and then back to the shallow, labored breaths. Hello hyperventilation. I repeat “inhale, exhale” in my head over and over as I try to focus on each breath… often to no avail.

For good measure, my body throws in some dizziness, uncontrollable chills, shaking and hot flashes. I go between shivering under three blankets to my hair dripping sweat down my back. All the while, my teeth chatter and my body trembles relentlessly.

Then my stomach joins the party. I get a weird gagging feeling in the back of my throat and that momentary feeling of hearing loss that notoriously happens to me right before I vomit.

But instead of having some semblance of relief by actually throwing up, the feeling of nausea persists as I hover over the toilet trying to will myself to puke.

Throughout this, my mind races.

Can't breathe. Going to puke. Chest hurts so bad. Why is this happening? Why now? Why me? What can I do? I can't breathe. How can I control this? How do I control this? I can't talk. I can't be normal. Why am I crazy? Nothing makes sense. I can't think.

The faster my thoughts go, the faster my heart beats; the faster I shake. It becomes hard to distinguish where the line blurs between mental and physical.

The worst part of all of this? While I feel extremely in tune with my body and every sensation, I also feel detached. I feel like I'm watching myself from the outside. I am totally out of my body and just an observer with no way to help or change what's happening. I am ready for fight or flight… but I can't do anything but sit and wait.

I feel like I'm watching myself from the outside.

Sometimes it takes five minutes. Sometimes it takes five hours.

When I do eventually calm down, I'm out of sync. I feel like I've been thrown off.

Every physical sensation and thought floating through my head is amplified with my body still on edge and near the point of exhaustion.

Even when it's over, I'm fearful of when it will happen next. I'm trapped in a continual loop of panic.

For millions of Americans, myself included, this is what living with panic and anxiety disorders feels like. You're not alone.