Many people I know wonder what a panic attack feels like - or THINK they have had one but, after they tell me the symptoms, I know it isn't a true panic attack. We all have anxiety and stress and sometimes we get really freaked out but a panic attack is a very special type of freak out. It's probably one of the scariest things you can go through even though you know that it won't kill you, you're not dying, and it will pass.
I have had anxiety and panic attacks all my life. I think when I was born, I looked around and had an immediate panic attack wondering about my new surroundings. I had what I now realize are anxiety attacks before going to kindergarten. I would wake up feeling fine, Mom would help me get dressed and ready and then I suddenly would feel like I was going to throw up. My hands would get clammy and my heart would race. I felt feverish. I missed many days of school because I was sick - but I was really just anxious.
Did I say JUST anxious? Anxiety may not kill a person but a panic attack can sure make a person feel like they're about to die.
Let me describe a panic attack to you so you can better understand how these horrible things feel.
Imagine that it's a beautiful sunny day. You're diving along the highway, listening to your favorite tunes, happily anticipating the event you are on your way to. Nothing's on your mind and you're feeling great.
You look down for a second to change the channel on the radio or skip a track on the CD you're listening to and when you look up, there is a huge truck plowing toward you, in your lane, about to smash you head on. You want to swerve to avoid sure death but there are cars on the side of you. The truck is barreling toward you full speed. Your heart is racing, your face is flushed, your hands and whole body are shaking. You're looking for a way to escape, a way to get out of the situation IMMEDIATELY before the inevitable happens. You're so hot you feel like you're on fire. You can't breathe. You feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest. Your hands are shaking so badly that you can't even drive and your focus is gone. This it is. You're going to die.
Then, just as that truck is about to slam into you, ending your life, it swerves into another lane and passes you. You immediately pull over. You're a mess. Your heart won't stop racing. You're shaking all over. Your legs feel like jelly. You're flushed and clammy, shaking like crazy and hyperventilating. It takes a long time to settle down from such a near catastrophe. You finally start to feel better. Slowly, you start to breathe normally again and your heart rate slows down. You get a grip on the situation and you start to relax. You're so thankful to have narrowly escaped sure death. At last, you can navigate your car back onto the highway but you're still hesitant. No longer do you feel carefree. That episode will live on for a long, long time.
That, my friends, is what a panic attack feels like from start to finish.
Although there is no real danger, your body and brain think there is. You go from feeling fine to being in complete fight or flight mode in seconds. You really think you will die. You start to believe you're having a heart attack or a stroke or some other fatal event. You only know that wherever you are, you have to get out of there. You need to get away from the situation that is causing this awful feeling. Of course, you will learn that it isn't the place or situation that causes panic attacks but at first, you blame the place. You blame the situation. You avoid places where you had panic attacks before. You avoid situations where you had a previous panic attack. You start to wonder if you will have another one whenever you step out the door to go somewhere. Soon, your life is consumed with fighting off panic attacks that you bring on by freaking yourself out thinking you're going to have a panic attack. It's a circle. And one that is so very hard to straighten out.
But I did. And you can. There are medications, therapies, behavioral techniques, and other helpful things that allow you to live panic free. I will talk more about anxiety and panic attacks in other articles. I want you to feel great and free of anxiety and panic because I know what it is like. And I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. OK, many my worst enemy but no one else!