Have you ever wondered, ‘What does a panic attack feel like?’ People often talk about them, but it can be hard to imagine what they feel like until you’ve experienced a panic attack for yourself. The symptoms can be frightening and confusing; an attack can come out of nowhere, and grip you in a vice. It can make you feel as if you’re about to die. You can live in perpetual fear of another one striking.
In this post, I’m going to discuss what my first panic attack felt like, and what I did to cope with it. Strap in!
What does a panic attack feel like?
I had my first panic attack at about three o’clock in the morning in June 2010. Something woke me from my sleep – I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was a bad dream. I was breathing faster and faster, and I was finding it harder to catch my breath.
This triggered something of a vicious, downward spiral. The more I tried to catch my breath, the more elusive oxygen seemed. My chest was tightening. I felt like I was being choked, like somebody had wrapped their fingers around my neck.
I went downstairs, somehow thinking that movement would shake off the symptoms. I was overwhelmed with a black feeling of dread. The only word I can think of to describe this feeling is ‘doom.’ I felt as if all hope was lost, like I’d reached the end of my life. I genuinely thought I was about to die. I thought I was having a heart attack.
It took about two hours for my symptoms to fully subside. When they did, I just started to cry. I felt traumatised! It sounds like an exaggeration, but I’d been shaken to my very core. I’d never known anything like it.
I was also exhausted. When I went to see my doctor the following morning, I said that I felt like I’d run a marathon. “Well you have!” she said. “As far as your body is concerned, you have run a marathon!” I was given beta blockers and told to take it easy.
How to summarise this? What does a panic attack feel like? I’d say it’s the ultimate terror, and an overwhelming sense of dread. And probably the closest thing to a heart attack that I’m ever going to experience. (Unless I have an actual heart attack 😉 )
What should you do after a panic attack?
I experienced many more panic attacks in the months and years that followed. I’ve been on the cusp of further attacks more recently – but I’m something of an expert with panic attacks these days! I can usually catch them before they take hold.
For me, the strength is in recognising what’s happening in the moment. I find it useful to be able to name a panic attack as it’s occurring. For me, the priority is in taking control of my breathing, and telling myself (in my head) “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay…”
Much has been written on the best kind of breathing to undertake at times of high stress. In my experience, the breathing-through-the-nose approach works best: that is, breathe through the nose for three seconds, hold for two, and then exhale through the mouth until the lungs feel ’empty.’ Rinse and repeat.
These days, on the rare occasion that panic attacks strike, I find I’m able to nip them in the bud quite quickly. I’d love to think that I’d never experience another one – heck, maybe I never will! That’d be awesome. But it pays to be ready I guess.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack? What does a panic attack feel like for you? What are your methods for dealing with them before they take hold? Feel free to share in the comments below.