This is what it feels like to have a panic attack

One in ten people get them


Panic attacks are sudden attacks of fear which come on suddenly, often for no reason. As well as feeling scared and overwhelmed, there are physical symptoms too which can be alarming if you don’t know what’s going on.

Why do we get them?

A panic attack is pretty much an adrenaline rush. It’s all part of the fight or flight response – a survival response for dangerous time. When our mind is afraid, our body produces adrenaline in order to help us fight back – for example, if there was someone chasing us we’d have the energy to escape. But without any way to release this adrenaline, our body gets overloaded and we have a panic attack. That’s often why a good thing to do is to keep moving.

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What happens to your body during a panic attack

It’s brought on from psychological symptoms so you’ll experience a crippling sense of fear and panic, but it’s really physical too. Symptoms include:

  • Your blood pressure increases in response to the adrenaline, and your breathing speeds up preparing you for muscular effort. Your heart rate rises, and can cause chest pains.
  • You’ll tremble as your body prepares for running, and your palms sweat to give you a better grip.
  • Digestion is disrupted as blood is moved from the stomach to major muscle groups, which can also make people feel really nauseous.
  • Pupils dilate to let in more light and allow us to see better, and some people feel like vomiting or defacating – which apparently have survival value too as they make your body lighter to run from an attacker.
  • A panic attack can last up to ten minutes, but sometimes they come in waves over a few hours.

Here’s what it actually feels like

Panic attacks vary from person to person, but here’s the general feeling I’ve had from them:

Difficulty breathing: This is normally one of the first symptoms. When I first started getting panic attacks I genuinely thought I had breathing problems which was really scary. I even considered calling 999 at one point. You’re very aware of your breath and it’s really hard to fully inhale. Breaths are normally short and shallow – which in turn brings on all the other symptoms.

Chest pains and nausaea: My chest gets really tight, as if someone’s pushing down against it. Sometimes I get stabbing pains too, and I always feel like I’m about to throw up.

Cold sweats and and trembling: I sweat and get freezing cold shivers at the same time. My whole body feels tingly.

Disorientation and claustrophobia: With your pupils dilating your vision is slightly altered, which can be disorientating. My whole body feels different and I start to feel really claustrophobic and uncomfortable – either in the room I’m in or in my own body.

Loss of speech and faintness: I sometimes feel so overwhelmed that I can’t even get my words out, and am really aware of what my voice sounds like and how I’m coming across. I feel dizzy, and as if everyone in the room is looking at me and I can’t escape. The first time I had a panic attack I thought I’d been spiked and was having a bad trip.

An overwhelming sense of fear and helplessness: Once you’ve experienced all these things, it’s pretty hard to work your way out. There’s this crippling feeling like something awful is about to happen right this second. It’s really hard to slow down your thoughts and think rationally, and you sometimes just have to ride it out.

Uncontrollable crying: I get this one all the time, I think it must be all the things building up and feeling a bit helpless. I’ll just have floods of tears, and normally this signals that I’m near the end of it. Sometimes they only last a  few minutes, but I’ve had some that have gone on for up to half an hour.

How do you prevent a panic attack?

  • One of the most important things is to focus on your breathing – make sure your breathing with your stomach rather than chest. Placing a hand on your stomach when you breathe in and out to 20 often helps.
  • Focus on your body. Wiggle your toes in your shoes, think of the pressure of yourself on the chair or try and touch something near to you. It will help bring you back in to the present.
  • Move. Physical activity can help use up some of the adrenaline.
  • There are loads of apps and websites to help, like No Panic who actually have a number you can call when you’re having one.

What should you do if you’re with someone having one?

The best thing to do is act as calm as possible, if you panic or look scared it will only make them worse. Keep them distracted – help them with their breathing, ask them to wiggle their toes, or give them tasks to do like counting the number of people wearing blue around them.