Symptoms of a Panic Attack
I decided to write this article because I see a lot of confusion about panic attacks when I talk to people. They don't really know what the symptoms are so they make all kinds of wild assumptions about what a panic episode atually is like. And most of the time they make fun of it. They don't think it's something serious.
To be honest with you, I remember that before I had my first panic attack, I didn't really know what it was like at all. I made all kinds of silly assumptions about panic attacks.
When I first heard about a girl in high school that had a panic attack when she was getting on a bus, I remember that I thought it was funny. I thought it was something trivial. Something that over-sensitive girls do when they can't have it their way...
Being an athletic, "larger than life" A grade student in those days, I wasn't going to succumb to something as "stupid" as a panic attack. I was thinking things like:
"By the way, what does panic attack even mean, right? It makes no sense. You're attacked by... your fears? Yeah... right."
"Well, if you're some overly sensitive sissy, then maybe that's your way of being the center of attention but not me. I don't need to thrash around with flailing arms to get somebody's attention, you know."
When it comes to panic attacks, many people think something similar to what I used to think. They imagine it's something like when 6 year old Jane can't have that new Barbie doll she wants so much and starts screaming and throwing a fit.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You don't know what a panic attack is like until it comes to you... and you're reduced to a mess of trembling limbs and tears and your entire being dissolves in pure, pitch-black dread.
Panic Attack Symptoms
I remember I was standing by a swimming pool with some friends getting ready to conquer the pool - and hit on some of the girls swimming in it. I was cracking some cocky jokes with my friends, checking out the girls and getting ready to do what a self-centered teenager does in a facility full of fine ladies dressed in revealing bikinis.
And then it came.
At first it was just a fleeting sense of horror. I barely noticed it.
Then, I swallowed... and I swallowed again to get rid of that thing that was stuck in my throat... and why does my chest feel so heavy? It's like my ribcage is filled with cement.
I decide to talk to one of my friends but the words don't come out. My throat is shut tight and I can't make any sound. Dang, why am I sweating all over my body? It's supposed to be cold in here.
I'm trying to force some of the cool swimming pool air down my throat but my muscles refuse to follow my orders. Now my friends are staring at me. FINALLY! I frantically try to gesture something along the lines of "Come on guys, help me, do something!"
And why is this place so crowded?! I have to get out of here!
I can hear my heart pounding in my hears. It's so loud. My heart is leaping against my rib like a frantic bird. It's like a funeral drum pounding my life away.
What's wrong with me? ... I can't see clearly, what going on?!
I see gray silhouettes of people moving around me quickly. SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!
Terror washes over me as I grab my chest. This must be a heart attack. As I going to die? Will it hurt? My hot, sweat-soaked skin freezes in horror. Fear seeps into my every pore and starts crawling under my skin. A gut-wrenching panic fills heart as I'm pushed to the edge of my consciousness, soon to pass out. It's that nauseating pulse of my heartbeat in my ears that unceremoniously counts down to my own non-being. My soul trembles as I lie trapped in a stranger's body in obliterating silence. My entire existence is dissolved in primal fear of something dark, dangerous and deadly. It's coming for me and I can't stop it.
My heart is beating against my ribcage like a machine gun now. I'm going to die in this swimming pool. Right now. It's all going to be over and there's nothing I can do about it. My head is a circus of real and imaginary images engulfed in incoherent noises. I can't tell what's real and what's just a figment of my imagination anymore. I feel my muscles twitching and feel strangely distant and unreal as I try to connect to my physical shell flailing helplessly on the floor.
My head is on a collision course with God as outlandish fragments of thoughts crash into my skull - each one of them pushing me one step closer to insanity. Desperation pulls at my heartstrings and a deep immobilizing fear queezes my windpipe. I muster my last ounce of strength and exert superhuman effort trying to tell which way is up and which way is down but it's futile. Reality is in another galaxy and I'm trapped inside a big pulsating lump of fear and panic that is my body.
Like shooting stars on the pitch black night sky my senses find their way back into my consciousness. I regain control over my hands. I try to arrange my limbs into a sitting position and try to pronounce strange, gibbered words to the gray silhouettes around me. Moments stretch into hours as I cling to every remnant of reality I can find. I grab my chest furiously as a violent inhale of breath finally pries my throat open. It's been ages since I last felt air in my lungs, it almost hurts. As my body remembers how to breathe, I violently gulp down every mouthful of air I can bite.
I try to stand up but it feels worse. I sit back down and fall back into fear and despair. My body is a puppet and my feelings of terror are pulling all the strings.
I'm lying on the cold marble floor clutching my chest praying that my heart won't stop beating. What's going on?
And then the silhouettes start moving quickly. They grab my arm and I hear voices saying "hey, what's going on? Are you okay?" Of course I'm not okay, if I was, I would have already told you so... Just call an ambulance finally!
Long minutes of palpable panic and terrifying helplessness are broken by vivid images of a white floor... of water and my friends faces floating into view. I quickly put my palm on my chest. My heart's still beating.
As the people around me are talking I seem to make out the words "panic attack." They say I'm going to be okay.
My breathing slows down and the lump seems to have disappeared from my throat. The adrenaline rush subsides and I'm driven home having no idea what just happened to me.
A doctor came that evening to check up on me and after performing various tests, he announced in a gleeful voice that there's no reason to worry. I'm in perfectly good health, all my health indicators are fantastic. And then he added "It was just a panic attack. Make sure you rest up and drink plenty of water."
After the First Panic Attack
I learned it the hard way that panic attacks are more than just a thrashing fit of an immature human being demanding attention. Basking in my teenage glory, like many people, I dismissed panic episodes condescendingly as something of a joke.
However, I'll never forget the first time true panic came to me. I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was about to die right then and there of a heart attack as I was gasping for air, slowly falling into the vacuum of mind-obliterating fear and eviscerating terror.
I learned that day that anxiety can come to anyone, at any time.
It takes enormous strength to live with anxiety. I want to remind anyone who thinks that people struggling with anxiety are weak that...
"Our panic attacks would drop you to your knees."