What a Panic Attack Feels Like

When you can’t control it.

Rene Asmussen via Pexels

Over the past twenty years or so, I thought I had control over my panic attacks. I used to get them more often. My husband, probably one of the best therapists in the country, taught me how to manage my symptoms and my stress so they rarely occur now.

Until this past week. I was in the middle of a stomach thing. My husband always says, avoid the Chicken McNuggets. I forget, though, so I had one lousy nugget, and again, I was sick in the bathroom. Sorry, Ronald McDonald, but your food sucks!

Unfortunately, during this episode, I had the worse panic attack I could remember. I don’t even remember the ones I had when I was in my twenties, but my husband reports that they were as bad as the one I had just recently.

It’s difficult for me to imagine anything this bad happening to me in the past.

So, before I move on with my life and forget about it again (because who wants to remember all the horrible things?), I want to record how it feels to have a panic attack, so people understand it’s not something you can just control or will away. You can manage it and decrease episodes, but it can always return and catch you by surprise.

Also, luckily, I’m at an age where I have the freedom to share these things because I just don’t give a f*ck what others think of me. I have learned over the years that it’s all probably just wrong, so why worry about something that’s way off base? No one except for my husband knows me. He knows me better than I know myself. Everyone else just doesn’t have a clue. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense to fret, so I might as well share something that would benefit others.

A Word First

First, I want to address the misconceptions people have about panic attacks. When people hear panic attack, they imagine a poor, helpless person you have to walk around on eggshells, so they don’t lose it every five minutes.

Actually, I am in a good place in my life. I feel well and happy most of my days, and I have the occasional bad day every once in a while. I also feel more self-confident than I ever have in my life.

I believe the attack was triggered by several factors. You see, people are complex beings, so it’s too easy to fall into “oh, this was the cause” trap. When it comes to our bodies, there is usually a lot of things going on.

I am in my fifties. I noticed that the panic attacks began returning around three years ago, right around when I hit the big five-o. During this time, I can tell my hormones have been up and down, perfectly natural for someone of my age to be going through, but it can spell trouble with the panic attacks.

Not only that, but I’m at an age where a heart attack is within the realm of possibility. I eat very healthfully, but because my father had a heart attack in his fifties, I believe this fear fueled this most recent attack. It was running through my mind the entire time.

I have my you-know-what. You know, I’m a chick, and I have the thing chicks get… oh, you know, right?

I have had past trauma. I believe that once our body learns a behavior pattern, it becomes its default mechanism. I am trying to teach my body how to unlearn going into panic attacks, but I have to try and do it from where I am at this point in my life. I really have worked out a lot of things, but there are still some more lurking. I’m addressing it now.

Added stress. Not all stress is bad. I have a lot going on in my life that spells success. In my career, things are on the move. It’s good! However, my body cannot tell the difference between good stress and bad stress.

Not enough sleep. At my age, I’m lucky if I can get my body to stay sleeping for a full seven hours, which leads to…

Overconsumption of caffeine. I have been working very hard over the past few months. I rely on my tea to help me keep going like I rely on air some days, and then that leads to...

Not enough water. I try to drink a lot, but when you get busy, the last thing you want to do is stop to drink water every five minutes, and then have to run to the bathroom every ten because you’re overdoing it on caffeine as it is.

I believe this created the perfect storm for what happened to me on Wednesday night.

The Attack

I was sitting on the bed with my husband, and we were busy laughing together. Then, the nausea hit me like a wave.

It had been a really long time since I’ve had a stomach thing too, so this was an unpleasant surprise, and I believe that was the start of the trouble.

Suddenly, I got the worst pain imaginable in my chest. I began crying, and tears flowed down my face uncontrollably.

My stomach then rejected the food that was in it, and I ran to the bathroom.

I stayed there on the floor of the bathroom all night, for hours, waffling back and forth between the most unimaginable pains that ravaged my chest, back, and arms, screaming and crying, and vomiting. I felt that I had lost all control of my body.

All lights, sounds, talking, moving, smells, everything, overloaded all my senses and made me vomit all the more.

All the while, I fully believed that I was going to die that night, which compounded the entire thing and made it worse. I did not recognize this attack as a panic attack.

I requested that my poor husband, who was trying his very best to care for me, get me a pillow and a blanket so I could stay on the floor of the bathroom. I finally managed to move myself to the bed in the morning.

He recognized that this was a panic attack, so that is why he did not bring me to the hospital. I have been through that before in my twenties, very few in my thirties and forties. I stopped going to the emergency room after the first couple because who wants to hear this? Nothing’s wrong with your heart. You had a panic attack. Go home. It can be embarrassing because the doctors have never had a panic attack, so they treat you like you’re making things up or being a drama queen.

The Takeaway

I woke up the next day. Much of the pain and nausea were gone, but I still have lingering effects. Real, physical discomfort, which include a headache, the worst heartburn ever, an upset stomach, and pains throughout my body. Not sharp ones that make me think I’m dying, but still, enough to take the wind out of my sails for the day.

My first concern was for my children, so when I could, I checked in with them. My daughter was very upset, but my husband promised her I would be okay. She hugged me a lot and said how happy she was that I was fine. The food didn’t sit well with my son either, so he was going through his own thing, but he’s better now. Just because he’s all grown up, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get upset.

My husband and I did some work together. We are working on how I can better identify good stress and how I can manage it. I also promised him that I would drink more water, get more sleep, cut down on the caffeine, and take more breaks from working.

I wrote this because people have trouble really understanding what it’s like to get a full-blown panic attack even when they live with a family member who gets them. If I had the capacity to control it at that time, I would have, trust me. I can control most of them. This time, it took me by surprise, and believe me, I suffered greatly because of it. It can mimic a heart attack, and if you have a really bad one, it is one of the worst pains you’ll ever feel. Almost up there with childbirth.

The most important thing you need to know, especially if you have a loved one who suffers from panic attacks, is that there is an entire physical component to these attacks that make them very hard to manage. It’s a lot more than stress, a lot more than feeling nervous. You can feel happy and chattering one minute, like I was, and then, the next, it hits you like a boulder falling from the sky. It hurts, a lot, and every time it happens, it physically feels like it’s going to be your last day on earth.

If you have a loved one who goes through panic attacks, let me give you some pointers from my husband’s playbook that will help you help your loved one manage a panic attack:

Talk to them in a soothing voice. Hearing a pleasant, calm, familiar voice helped calm me down.

Tell them they are having a panic attack, and they are not dying. Even if they don’t believe it now, they will believe it when they survive until the next day and then experience another one. Even if you have said it with each panic attack, tell them again because your loved one is not thinking that it is a panic attack. They are busy thinking how they will survive from moment to moment, and they don’t want to die.

Have them do some deep breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four. Breathe in blue, white, and golden light, exhale grey and black. The colors and the counting will help them refocus, and the deep breathing does help reset a stressed-out person.

Hold their hand if they’ll let you. It does help.

Tell them to say STOP! It does help when you can reach them.

The Upside

That’s why I’m so happy to be alive right now, today. I’m so relieved that it was just another panic attack and not a life-ending heart attack. My husband tried to get through to me, but I was somewhere else with this one, and he had trouble reaching me. That’s why it took such a toll on me.

And, because I’m a writer, I have to share my misery, but I’m glad that at least I’m alive to tell you all about it.

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Kirsten Schuder, M. S., Mental Health Counseling

Kirsten Schuder, M. S., Mental Health Counseling

Kirsten Schuder lives a double life as an international award-winning nonfiction author and editor while carrying on a secret love affair as a fiction author.