Since suffering with many panic attacks throughout the past year, and regularly being asked 'what does it feel like?', I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the different stages of a panic attack from my personal perspective as the sufferer, and also explain why it happens from a medical/nursing perspective. As I have mentioned before, panic attacks do not affect everyone with anxiety, and is more connected to my panic disorder, but they happen differently for every person. As part of my treatment plan, I had to explain to my doctor what happens to me during a panic attack to ensure it was all 'normal' and, rest assured, all of my symptoms are 'normal'. My panic attacks are either triggered by something that makes me feel vulnerable or threatened, like a certain environment or bad thoughts, or on some occurrences, I have experienced them with no trigger at all, but they do usually occur in the same order of symptoms and for the same amount of time.
Firstly, my heart rate will increase and pump so hard it feels like it is going to fall out of my chest. I can hear it in my ears, I can feel it more than I have ever felt my heart before. Although it is the first sign of my panic attack coming on, it also occurs when I am just feeling anxious or uneasy on a day to day basis so, for me, it isn't the ultimate 'I'm going to have a panic attack' symptom. This happens due to the sudden increase in adrenaline that gets released into the blood stream, which puts your body into 'fight or flight' mode and the heart has to work harder to get oxygen to the muscles to be able to fight or run away.
My breathing will start to increase. I don't always notice this happening as it usually happens at the same time as my heart beating fast and I'm usually too focused on controlling that, but my breathes will become shorter and faster and if I don't manage to calm myself down, I start to hyperventilate. Hyperventilation is the most horrible symptom for me as I struggle really really hard to calm my breathing down. During a panic attack, I will genuinely feel like i'm drowning and that I can't physically get my breath. 'I can't breathe' is usually the only think I say during a panic attack. This happens due to the body thinking it needs more oxygen for fight or flight and so will breathe faster to drag more oxygen in, however, hyperventilation is the body breathing off more carbon dioxide that in can produce using the oxygen it is inhaling. It gives the feeling that there is not enough air in the body when actually, there is too much, and you begin to literally drown in air.
My body will then have a hot flush from my feet up to my head, almost like the feeling when you open to oven door and the hot air hits you, and then I will start to tingle. For me this is my 'i'm going to have a panic attack' symptom. When this happens, I know I either need to help myself right now, or find somewhere to go where I can be safe and calm myself down for the panic attack to take over. It starts in my face and hands and will travel up my arms down my legs and into my toes. The only way I can describe it is like the feeling after pins and needles but a bit less painful and lasts a lot longer. It can turn into more of a numbness in my fingers and toes but will usually remain tingley throughout the whole attack. This happens due to blood rushing away from the skin and to the muscles for fight or flight again, leaving it tingly and cold.
My vision will begin to distort. I can only describe it as being similar to watching static on a TV. My vision doesn't become blurred and the room doesn't spin but its almost like the world is flashing on and off in front of me. This makes me feel dizzy and I feel like I need to close my eyes. This happens due to the increase in my blood pressure and heart rate. It also occurs due to pupil dilation happening for 'fight or flight' which increases light sensitivity, hence the flashing.
My hearing will also be affected. Not completely but suddenly it will sound like I am underwater, or have an earplug in, and everything is muffled. Strangely, it affects one ear, then swaps to the other, then back to the other and will not affect both my ears at the same time. This symptom also makes me feel very dizzy. This hearing distortion happens due to the 'fight or flight response' again and is called 'auditory exclusion' where your body blocks out sounds to help you focus on fighting or running away.
Then I will begin to feel sick. Sometimes it's a mild niggling nausea which wont shift, other times it's a 'get me to a toilet, I'm going to be sick' sort of feeling. Despite this symptom, I have never vomited during a panic attack but will always sit by a toilet when I get to this stage if I can. This is because the blood in the digestive tract flows away from your stomach and to your muscles, again, ready for your body to fight or run away and so digestion slows down which can cause nausea and in some cases vomiting.
I will shake. Hard. To the point where i'm sweating because the shaking has caused me to involuntary warm myself up. It will start in my hands and knees and spread throughout the attack. 9/10 I will need to sit down as I have previously collapsed due to my knees giving way from underneath me during a panic attack. This happens due to the release of adrenaline in the body, hyping the body up to fight or run away.
Finally, I will cry. Crying usually happens when I experience a panic attack. Usually because I am scared and out of control. Even though I have experienced them before, I will still feel like I am dying each and every time I have one, and it is petrifying. Afterwards, I will cry too, out of embarrassment usually and due to not feeling good at all. I have had panic attacks where I don't cry but these will often be the attacks which affect me more afterwards, as I feel more tired and more 'run down' when I haven't cried. Odd, I know.
Even as a student nurse, I still feel all of these things and still feel like my life is about to end for between 10-30 minutes despite knowing the medical side to it all, however they can happen one after the other so can be longer. As you can imagine, after a panic attack, I sleep. My body is weak, my emotions are all over the place and I feel very blank and empty. My muscles ache and my jaw will ache from tensing throughout. It feels like I've sprinted for 30 minutes without a break - out of breath, nauseous, hot, and aching all over.
I hope you have found this post interesting and has given those of you that have had no experience of a panic attack some new information, and has given those of you who have had experience of a panic attack know that you're not alone, and what you feel is completely normal. I will be doing a post on how I calm myself down and bring me out of an attack in the near future and will write one on what to do if someone you're with has a panic attack too, so look out for them.
Love Luce xo