Here’s What a Severe Panic Attack Feels Like

Most panic attacks don’t involve loss of consciousness. Mine did, thus the trip to the ER.

I’m at lunch, ordering my food, but I feel wrong. I’m sweating and there’s a tingling sensation throughout my body. I want to go to the bathroom and splash cold water in my face, but there is no bathroom, so I go back and stand by the counter to wait for my food.

Next thing I know I’m on the ground on my side. There are several people I don’t recognize standing around me. “Are you with us?” “Can you hear me?” I am, and I can, but I can’t speak. I nod.

I recognize that there is chaos going on around me, and I’m the center of it, but I’m barely conscious. I don’t know how long I’ve been out and I don’t know exactly what’s going on. Eventually I remember the feeling that preceded it and I can piece together that I must have lost consciousness, which has never happened to me before.

The strangers are still with me, reassuring me, telling me I’m going to be alright. My friend and coworker is frantically making phone calls. He doesn’t know what’s happened. No one does.

Some time later there are medical responders. They’re asking me my name, my birthdate, what year it is. I manage to answer, but I can only eke out one word at a time, with what seems like extraordinary effort. Sometimes I start to speak and I lose energy and stop. My eyes are closed. Someone tells me to open them.

The light is blinding, and now there’s a flashlight in my eyes that I’m told to follow. I’m able to do it. So I haven’t had a stroke and I can move my eyes in sync. I know these are good signs. I’m lifted up into a wheelchair.

The medics use words I don’t understand. None of it sounds good. I hear someone say an ambulance is 10 minutes away. I’m told to keep my eyes open.

I hear someone say, “Well, you bought yourself an IV,” and a needle goes into my wrist. I feel it, but it doesn’t register as pain. There’s a serious lag between what I sense and my ability to respond to it.

I hear the ambulance siren approaching and for the first time in my life I realize that siren is coming for me. This is a very weird realization. I’m lifted onto a stretcher and taken outside and wheeled to the ambulance. It seems like we’re going for blocks.

I’m told to get into the ambulance. I can barely stand. I feel like I have no strength at all, and they have to grab both my arms and help me up. I manage to stagger to the stretcher and flop down on it.

My eyes are still open but I can’t look at anything for too long because I’m having strange visual hallucinations. Perspectives are all off. The ambulance interior seems stretched, like it’s a foot wide and ten feet tall. Everything is moving in a jumpy, disconcerting manner.

They’re asking more questions, and I answer them all, with great difficulty. I’m able to move my feet so I know I’m not paralyzed. I know who I am and I know what’s going on, so I know I’m not in terrible shape.

I’m still sweating, and I hear one of the medics comment on it. I can feel that my shirt is soaked through. They help me off with it and start adhering wires to my chest and abdomen.

At this point I know it’s a panic attack, and I want to say the words “I know what this is,” but nothing comes out. At one point I manage to say to my friend, “Tell me I’m going to be okay,” which he, and others, have been telling me. I desperately need to hear these words some more, but I’m not sure he hears me.

I feel exhausted and I want to close my eyes but I know I shouldn’t. I want to ask someone, “Is it okay if I go to sleep?” but I feel certain that if I close my eyes I’ll never open them again. My hold on life feels tenuous at best.

In my head I’m telling myself, “this is a panic attack. It will stop. You’re not dying,” but I feel like I’m dying. I’m sure I’m dying. I feel my body getting cold and I’m even more sure I’m dying, so I keep repeating to myself, “this is a panic attack,” although the only sounds I’m making are moans and gasps.

I’m wheeled into the ER and put into a small room. A doctor asks me more questions; I answer them all, but only with tremendous effort. Eventually he asks if this has happened to me before and I nod. He asks, “Is it like a panic attack,” and I say “exactly.” Now he knows what he’s dealing with and I hear him say something about giving me something for the panic.

This is apparently done through my IV because the only thing I’m given to swallow is two potassium pills. I’m told my potassium is low, so I swallow them.

I’m still hallucinating. Everything’s jumping about wildly so I keep moving my eyes from one thing to the next. I see trails when people walk by. My sense of perspective is still out of whack.

At some point a man appears with a clipboard and some papers; he needs my signature on my admitting forms, “If I can.” I manage to scrawl something resembling my signature, and am dimly aware of the absurdity of this scene; there’s always time for paperwork.

After a while I’m taken up to my room and I’m told they’re going to give me a chest x-ray and a CAT scan. I’m still barely conscious. I’m still only partially aware when they wheel in the x-ray equipment and have me sit upright. Some time later I get wheeled to the CAT scan machine, which I’m slid into and out of in what seems like no time. I remember having an MRI previously, but this is much faster than that.

I’m taken back to my room and eventually I feel myself relaxing. A while later I’m finally able to speak without effort and I realize I have my strength back. I look at the clock and it’s 7 P.M. It’s been six-and-a-half hours since I went unconscious, and only now do I feel like I’ve fully come to.

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Every panic attack is different. I had one 20 years ago, but I never lost consciousness, I just laid on my couch for six hours trying not to die. This time was similar in the way it came on, but far more severe and terrifying. I’ve had other, smaller ones in the intervening years, but always managed to self-talk and breathe my way out of them rather quickly.

The whole event still seems like a dream, but some things I remember clearly. The amazing kindness of the strangers in the restaurant who consoled me and stayed with me until the medical techs arrived. “You’re gonna be alright, buddy. Hang in there. Everything’s alright.” The heroic professionalism and competence of the responders who tended to me and reassured me at the same time. My friend who rode with me to the hospital and told me I was going to be okay, even though I’m sure he was freaking out worse than I was.

Mostly I remember being in the ambulance, telling myself “this is just a panic attack,” but also not knowing for sure that’s all it was. I remember thinking, “This is how it happens.” Something goes wrong. You’re put into an ambulance and you have no idea what’s going on. You concentrate on staying alive, but you know that it’s not really something you can control. “This is how it happens.” No one explains it to you, you can’t even ask questions, you just try to hold on, but what if you can’t? What if you can’t keep your eyes open?

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It still seems strange to me that these episodes are referred to as panic attacks, because the feeling is not at all what you think of when you imagine panic. It doesn’t feel like an adrenaline rush, although there is one (my heartbeat was greatly elevated); it actually feels like the opposite of an adrenaline rush — you feel powerless, frozen, trapped inside your own body. Even though you can breathe, you’re certain you can’t. Even though you are in control of your movements, it feels like you’re not. It’s as if your body has shut down completely and your mind isn’t far behind.

If you’ve never suffered a panic attack, be grateful, and if you know anyone who has had a panic or anxiety attack, realize they’re not talking about being worried or scared. These things are many, many levels of fear above those everyday, and comparatively benign, emotions.

I don’t recommend it.

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There’s good information about panic/anxiety attacks here and here, and this piece is a good illustration of the different ways panic attacks can manifest.