View Full Version : What does a panic attack feel like?

04-05-2008, 06:26 AM
I find myself stuck because my MC is having a panic attack, and I can visualize this all very well from the outside... but since he's my POV character I need to know what's going on inside.

The situation: About two weeks previous, my MC was caught in a huge crowd and trampled badly. He panicked a little at the time, but then shook it off. He was bruised but otherwise okay. Now he finds himself at a small town parade. He was a little nervous about the crowds at first but since everyone is sitting down watching the parade he is fine. But then after the parade he and everyone else head toward the fairgrounds. So it's a kind of big, loose crowd - not dangerous - and he keeps telling himself he's fine, but the crowd gets tighter and in the end he's going to panic.

So can someone describe for me what this would look like? How does it feel, both physically and emotionally? Would he be confused, heart beating fast, what?

Also I am wondering if he would have the presence of mind in the midst of this to be really pissed off at himself for letting this happen. His girlfriend, who pulled him out of the first stampede, is with him, and he's trying super hard not to look like a total wimp.

Azure Skye
04-05-2008, 06:46 AM
Heart palpitations, heart racing, hyperventilating (possibly), dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, tingling fingers, feeling like you're about to pass out, feeling like you're about to die, feeling the urge to escape the situation. In severe cases there could be confusion. It's an adrenaline rush for no apparent reason. It would be like walking down the street minding your own business and someone jumps out at you -- that sensation -- being scared, ready to run or fight. Physically, I don't know what it looks like but it feels like shit. It's the scariest thing to happen to you because it comes out of nowhere sometimes. Emotionally, it's unsettling because it happens so fast but the fear of it happening again remains...and it is a strong fear.

If the guy is experiencing this for the first time then he might not have the skills to know how to handle the situation. Talking to yourself works; deep breathing works better. Teaching yourself to remain calm takes time. Sometimes you just have to sit and let it happen, remembering to breathe.

From what you wrote, I'd say the guy would be looking for the nearest exit or somewhere he can go to be safe. He might not have the presence of mind to be pissed off at that moment. Later, maybe. I hope that helps.

To show how awful it feels: I kept asking my spouse to take me to the hospital or call for an ambulance because I really thought it was the end. It feels that bad.

04-05-2008, 06:54 AM
From what you wrote, I'd say the guy would be looking for the nearest exit or somewhere he can go to be safe. He might not have the presence of mind to be pissed off at that moment. Later, maybe. I hope that helps.

It totally does, thanks! Actually... having him get pissed off a little later works well for the story too. :)

To show how awful it feels: I kept asking my spouse to take me to the hospital or call for an ambulance because I really thought it was the end. It feels that bad.

Wow, that sucks. For my character, hospitals are his worst fear, so even if he thought he was dying he'd tell everyone to leave him alone. ;)

04-05-2008, 07:23 AM
Hell on earth.

04-05-2008, 07:23 AM
First time this happens is probably going to be overwhelming unless he's given it some thought before hand. Azure describes it pretty well.

If he goes extreme, you've got three possible external reactions. One is that he freezes. Like a tree. Won't move. Period. Nothing he's hearing will register. He'll just stand there until his body calms down. Second is that he collapses. Probably be feeling like he's having a heart attack and probably the bystanders will assume the same thing. Third is that he starts flailing. It will be very ineffectual hand waving to create a space around him. All of these are from system overload. There's not much a bystander can do until the person calms down. Touching the person could result it the person being slugged.

Less extreme would have him standing there or capable of being led. Some response to the external world.

All of this will feel like the world has come to an end. Death seems like a good idea. I doubt that he'll be pissed for quite a while. Fear is going to be the strongest emotion for a long time.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

04-05-2008, 07:40 AM
My experience generally involved vomiting.

Usually occurred at night--to briefly get into why, it seemed to occur after I self-harmed (that's dealt with now; this was several years ago).

I would gradually start to panic, and I couldn't even figure out why at first. I would get more and more anxious, over-the-top, freaking out, a million times worse than worrying over an exam. It was hard to breathe and my breaths were shallow. Learning to breathe properly later on helped me, but at first I couldn't think. All I knew was how scared I felt and how irrational it was, and I think knowing it was irrational was maybe the worst part.

It got worse at first because I didn't know how to deal with it. Initially it was in my room as previously mentioned, then it got to be when I was in public. I knew enough about anxiety thanks to my interest in psychology in general that thankfully, I was aware that I had to resist the urge to withdraw. It was incredibly difficult, but learning to breathe through it, I managed for the most part to cope.

I don't completely remember the experience now. It felt almost surreal at the time, and that helped drive the panic. My breath came faster and faster and I would close my eyes and wish it would go away, but inevitably, I threw up, and then it passed. I've always hated vomiting, and that probably added to the problem.

Hopefully that was even slightly helpful?

I have Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue, which are often connected with anxiety (the anxiety comes with them, not vice versa). I don't know if my experience is the norm, therefore. Also with the Fibro and CFS comes brain fuzziness, hence the somewhat blurry memory.

04-05-2008, 12:55 PM
You're in luck! I experienced one of sorts two days ago for the first time.
My first symptom was strange calm, the incident which caused me stress was over and I was recovering however my heart continued to beat faster and my vision began to become blurry.

When I stood up and took several steps I collapsed my senses became dulled. That slow motion you often see in war movie battle scenes describes how my sight was when I moved my head. Heavy breathing extremely fast heart beat, shivering everything after that was to get me to calm down. Sounds felt echoed and far away.

04-05-2008, 01:19 PM
There's also the not knowing that what you're having is a panic attack vs a heart attack or heat stroke--and this fear will intensify creating a vicious circle--unless: someone helps you get out of it, you pass out from the stress or self-induced shock, or you go starkers and scream and/or become catatonic--worst case.

Panic attacks are the self-fulfilling prophecy taken to an extreme, not just the 'I don't like it here, I don't like them, I don't like what's happening' etc, but the mental state of convincing yourself that you are in mortal danger and you will die if you don't get elsewhere. These can also lead to disassociative states much like someone escaping physical/sexual abuse.

I've had 3 small ones--had a spontaneous nose bleed in one which actually made me concentrate on getting my senses back because I was making a mess.

L M Ashton
04-05-2008, 03:21 PM
Mine sometimes result in me getting angry, depending on what the panic attack is about. If it's about too many people around, I get angry. I hate people touching me, getting too close, talking to me, being around me, and it pisses me off. I have to get away from them all as fast as I can into as big a space as possible and no one can come within ten or fifteen feet of me until it's over.

I also have the blood rushing into my brain, hot stuffy ears, tunnel vision, heavy panicked breathing on top of other things already mentioned.

04-05-2008, 03:45 PM
Horrific, sharp pains rip through chest cavity. Awakens you out of a dead sleep. Gasping--not so much short of breath, but because pain is searing. Abruptly, left arm feels as if you pumped iron all day--muscles suddenly feel bruised/heavy.

Emergency room whisks you in, treats you like heart attack patient. I.V. goes in faster than leech fangs while cuff is wrapped 'round your other arm, checking blood pressure. Forefinger slipped into white clip thing, giving instant screen-viewing results of your heart rate.

Somehow, w/i seconds, they determine it's not a heartattack and shoot morphin into i.v.

And faster than you can say life sucks, you're sighing with relief, big happy grin plastering your face....and never felt better/floaty in your life.

1) NEVAH allow evil step mothers back in your life.
2) Appreciate voodoo priestess that has power to...er..nevermind
3) Regardless of morphin high, I hope NEVER to experience such horrific pain, the awful sense of losing control....nor a child crying over me, thinking his mom is dying.

There are variations of panic attacks...this was my lovely one. I've had one other, where teeth start chattering which graduates to the entire jaw painfully trembling. Breathing is more like gulping--imagine having held your breath under water for longer than you should have. Thought process becomes choppy. And you start repeating a stupid phrase or catch word, almost as if it helps you to focus. Example: okay...okay...okay....
And this will be more of a panic whispering, not calm voice.
Yes, wringing of hands commences, even swiping of face.

After ordeal is over, a profound sense of exhaustion takes over, as if the brain has dealt with enough and is now shutting down. You 'crash'. I've heard from others that headaches ensue, but I've never had one. Just heavy tiredness, limbs feeling heavy for days...as if I overdosed on sleeping pills or something.

Hope this helps.

04-05-2008, 04:12 PM
Racing heart, feeling like you can't breathe, sweating, numbness (pinch yourself just to see if you can still feel). No matter where you are or who is with you, you need to get out of there. You start eyeing doors, windows, any possible escape routes. Paranoia. You are positive that everyone can tell what you are going through and are whispering about you. You can't hear or focus on what people are saying; your ears are full of rushing water. You feel like if you can only get out of the room or the situation, you'll be able to breathe.

Above all I remember the feeling of not being able to breathe and the overwhelming paranoia.

Ol' Fashioned Girl
04-05-2008, 04:42 PM
I ended my first one with hysterical crying. It was almost exactly one year after my father's death. Otherwise, pretty much exactly as described above. I never had one that bad again... though I did have several less severe, I always feared I'd have another like that first one - in a public place where I couldn't hide it. They finally supsided into spells where I just couldn't catch my breath, then went away altogether.

But there's always that fear...

04-05-2008, 04:50 PM
Heart palpitations, hyperventilating, tunnel vision, nausea, uncontrollable and often violent trembling, dizziness, and at least the first few times, accompanied by a sense of -this sounds wretchedly melodramatic, but it's the best way I can say it- of impending doom so total that moving is almost impossible. Often there's a kind of drugged calm afterward. Fight or flight is a pretty wild ride when it's not attached to anything justifying it.

The next few times I just felt stupid and furious, because even though I knew what was happening I couldn't do anything to make it stop.

Needless to say, anger does not help bring you out of it. :)

They can be dramatic and terrifying or almost invisible. I don't get them too often these days, and rarely around other people, but I've been told that it's hard to tell I'm having one. One of my ex-aunts, on the other hand, had one so bad a few years ago that her hands curled into claws and all her muscles started spasming - we all thought she was having a stroke and was going to die right in front of us.

04-05-2008, 05:06 PM
All of the above, and my experience included tunnel vision.
I couldn't bear to look left or right and was fixated on the ground or the floor immediately in front of me.
Also, once I had a panic attack, I would have another one if I revisited the same location or found myself in a similar circumstance - like driving past the same spot on the highway, or finding myself in a crowded room far away from a door.
Having one attack predisposes you to having more.
It creates a vicious cycle.

ETA: And hyperventilating caused my hands to clench into claws.

L M Ashton
04-05-2008, 06:37 PM
Oh, I should mention I have different phobias, and they can cause different types of panic attacks. The ones with people touching me or being in my space involved anger, but ones involving claustrophobia (I went spelunking in an underground cave with friends, which is how I discovered this), for example, were totally different and included me going cold and clammy (drenched in cold sweat), and not able to move. I was completely afraid that I would get lost on the way to the cave entrance, despite it being only a dozen feet away and easy to see, what with the light entering through it and all. Seriously illogical. Had to wait for my friends to, quite literally, escort me back - one in front of me to guide me and the other behind me to keep me safe. Seriously illogical. :D

04-05-2008, 10:08 PM
Wow, thank you to everyone for sharing your experiences. This has been super helpful. Also based on the info you all have given, I think I am not going to make this the first time for my character. I don't want someone to call an ambulance or rush him to the hospital or anything - I think I need him to know what's going on.

04-06-2008, 02:23 AM
I'd just like to say that I was pretty sure what was going on when I had my first panic attack. I didn't think I was dying and I didn't think there was something physically wrong. It felt exactly like panic, and I'd done enough reading to know what panic/anxiety attacks were.

But it seems like I'm probably the minority?

L M Ashton
04-06-2008, 05:27 AM
I don't know - I knew what was going on, too. I didn't feel like I was dying. I knew it was a panic attack. But then, it was in the middle of a cave spelunking, so, you know, typical place for a sudden onset of claustrophobia. :) I actually laughed about it a bit, too. So stereotypical of me to have a panic attack in a cave. I mean, couldn't I be more original at least? :)

04-07-2008, 07:08 PM
Hey JoNightshade, I just happened to get this on my feed list this morning, and immediately remembered your post about panic attacks :) http://health.howstuffworks.com/panic-attack.htm

Hope it helps!