This Is What a Panic Attack Really Feels Like

Unwanted adrenaline, unwelcome thoughts. All rationality flies out the window and what's left is the certainty that it's only going to get so much worse. My body fails, my heart races, my throat closes, my vision gets dark, my stomach falls to my feet. I don't want to be touched — but sometimes someone's touch is the only thing that grounds me. I need to be grounded. I need a cold breeze on my overheated face, I need a hand to grip tightly, I need you to be patient. Please be patient.

Panic attacks are unwelcome dark clouds that threaten to block the sun from my days. They are something I've dealt with off and on throughout my adulthood, with wonderful years of relief from them followed by terrible onslaughts of attacks that last for days, weeks, and even months. They leave me feeling like a hostage in my own body, but time and a ton of effort has taught me ways to fight them, and I have hope that one day I'll be able to rid myself of them for good.

Everyone experiences panic attacks differently, and physical symptoms can vary quite a bit. The common factor is that to those suffering from panic attacks, they are very, very real — and they are horrible. For me, panic attacks are very physical and often genuinely make me feel as though I am actually dying, because my body reacts so intensely and so tangibly to the effects of the disorder. Here are some of the physical effects panic attacks can have on someone.

Cold sweats wash over you.

A chill goes through my body. It feels like ice water is running through my veins, but I also get flashes of heat that causes a cold sweat all over my body.

Hands tingle, your body shakes, limbs go numb.

Pins and needles start to creep up from the tips of your fingers. Parts of your face go numb. There have been times I have held out my hand in front of my face and watched it shake uncontrollably as the inexplicable terror took over. In the midst of a panic attack, it's hard to believe that the sensations you're feeling physically are a direct result of the attack and not from some other terrible threat. The physical effects may be your body's reaction to what your mind is going through, but that does not mean that the physical symptoms aren't actually happening — because they truly are.

In the moment, it's very hard to have a rational thought.

Anyone who experiences panic attacks has probably been told at some point during an episode to "calm down." And we will all tell you the same thing: it's not that simple at all. I feel like I'm dying, and in that moment of absolute terror, nothing you can tell me in your cool, calm, collected voice can convince me otherwise.

Waves of nausea roll in.

For me, one of the first signs that a panic attack is about to occur is the sinking of my stomach. I get extremely nauseous — some people actually get physically sick during an attack. It's like the feeling you get when you miss a step or go over a big hill in a car — a dread fills my body, starting from the bottom of stomach, and the fear rises all the way up to the back of my throat, which is about the time I start to feel like my throat is closing and that I can't breathe.

Breathing is shallow, difficult, and sometimes even painful.

There's nothing more terrifying than attempting to take a deep breath to calm yourself to discover that you are only able to take shallow, sometimes painful gasps of air, which just further convinces you that your chest is caving in, your throat is closing up, or your lungs are collapsing.

You may feel dizzy or like you're passing out.

One of the scariest symptoms of a panic attack is extreme dizziness or the impending fear that you're going to black out. This sensation could be a result of gasping for air and hyperventilating, which can lead an intake of excess oxygen and a deprivation of carbon dioxide in your blood.

You're convinced that you're having a heart attack.

I'm in my late 20s, healthy, and active. None of these facts change the certainty I feel that I am suffering a heart attack in the moment. My chest seizes up and sharp pains shoot up and around my rib cage. My heart races; it feels like a hummingbird has taken flight inside my chest and the rapid beating of its wings is a chaotic reminder of the state I'm in.

It seems like an undeniable truth that the world — or at least that your world — is ending.

Panic is suffocating. Suffering from a panic attack is like being deathly claustrophobic, then forced into a box where all sides are slowly closing in on you. How are you supposed to "calm down" when walls are coming to crush you, while all you can do is sit back and wait? There is a sense of urgency I feel when I'm having an attack — to run, to stay still, to curl up in a ball and wait for something to get better (or worse). Despite that sense of urgency, none of the courses of action feel quite right, until the attack has finally passed and I can breathe again.

When the attacks are over, your body can feel physically drained.

The acute panic attack usually last several minutes, but the effects of the attack can be felt for hours after. I often feel like I've just climbed a mountain, or I feel that bone-deep tired associated with the flu or pulling an all-nighter in college. Because my muscles are so tense during an attack, once the adrenaline wears off and I am able to calm down and breathe again, the exertion from the episode leaves me feeling weak and exhausted.

All of these symptoms are very real, but there are ways to work through panic attacks, as well as ways to prevent them, that you can learn. Panic and anxiety disorders don't have to rule your life! I'm not going to let them rule mine if I have anything to say about it.