Beyond The Panic: What An Anxiety Attack Really Feels Like

Beyond The Panic: What An Anxiety Attack Really Feels Like

This comes from a parent of a child with what we call “invisible disabilities”. This comes from a teacher whose students miss class for mental illnesses that no one can verify. This comes from a woman who lived 35 years thinking the feeling of her heart racing, being short of breath, and having sleepless nights were completely normal because I didn’t know otherwise.

Anxiety is not fiction.

Many who have never dealt with these ailments or had close friends or family members suffer from their symptoms simply dismiss them as a means of excusing them from mundane tasks or work requirements. Much like ADHD or depression, anxiety is not something that can necessarily be seen or even proven when you are the sufferer struggling to explain yourself to someone who doubts that your night sweats and inability to turn your brain off in the wee hours of the morning are not something you are making up to take a vacation day. Our life is not a vacation.

Anxiety is real. Panic is not made up. Owning, getting help overcoming, and learning to cope with your anxious feelings can be critical to finally living your life and not simply existing.

This is what an anxiety attack really feels like.

It was 3:00 in the morning. I woke up from a dead sleep, sat straight up, and immediately knew something was very wrong. I was sweating, nauseous, and felt like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water into my chest and I felt is spill down my abdomen and through my arms and legs. My chest felt like a giant’s hand was squeezing it with every intention of taking my life.

I knew I was dying.

“Call the squad!” I yelled to my husband, without a thought that I might wake our sleeping children. I refuse to go to the doctor for fairly major infractions so he knew I was serious.

In the minutes that passed before the EMT’s arrival, I moved myself to the couch, clutched my chest because the pain was more intense than labor contractions, and secretly sent a voice message to my husband’s phone hysterically telling him how grateful I am for him and expressing my love for my children. I was sure it would be the last thing my children ever heard of my voice.

I knew I was dying.

When they took my vitals, my heart rate had soared above 136 and my breathing was rapid and short. The sweating had slowed but I was nauseous and dry heaving. It took about 30 minutes for them to update my stats and explain that they thought I may have had a minor heart attack or I could have blood clots going to my heart.

“Ma’am, you need to be transported.” I barely made sense out of what was happening.

Blurry hours and medicine-filled tests later, it was deemed gallstones and a panic attack.

A panic attack. But I have anxiety.

I thought panic attacks were reserved for women who were overly emotional and struggled with depression. The picture I had of these women from after school movies and health class worksheets hadn’t prepared me for a relatively happy wife, mother, teacher, writer, and friend falling victim to such a terrifying incident. This had to be wrong. I had been so misinformed.

I was 34 before I even knew anxiety was real. I had lived my entire life with these feelings, never knowing that everyone else wasn’t doing the same thing. I was 35 when I reached out to a friend who is a nurse practitioner to ask about my symptoms. That is when I began taking medication.

I am on the lowest dose of an anxiety medication offered and have been taking it for six months. It has changed my life. Why are people ashamed of this? Why was I?

Just like nothing could have really prepared me for marriage or parenting, nothing could have helped me prep my  mind for the feelings that flooded my body when it was in full panic.

When I was in the middle of my panic attack, there was no person, no statistic, no test that could have convinced me that I wasn’t living my last moments. I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare where my husband and kids were in my line of sight but just out of reach. All at once, I felt all of the emotion of the idea that I would never see my kids grow up, graduate, get married, or give us grandchildren. I would never retire and travel the world with my adventurous husband. I would never see my dreams realized of being a full-time paid writer.

All in a moment that may have lasted hours or seconds, everything came to a halt.

The word ‘panic’ doesn’t seem to reach the sensations I felt during those minutes and hours. My body ached, my insides contracted and felt ice cold, my heart physically hurt worse than any pain I’ve felt. What was worse was the absolutely paralyzing, gripping fear that I was leaving so many things undone. Sheer and utter incapacitating fear.

Never doubt someone who suffers from symptoms they cannot show you. Sure, some people may be dishonest. But those with actual mental and emotional struggles wouldn’t wish what they go through on anyone. They surely wouldn’t write it as fiction.


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4 Replies to “Beyond The Panic: What An Anxiety Attack Really Feels Like”

  1. Oh man. I really feel this one. I just spent the last month between an inpatient psychiatric facility and a partial hospitalization program for a severe bipolar episode. Trying to explain to everyone at work why I missed the last month and a half (because I spent a few days unable to work before I finally got help) was incredibly difficult. Those that believe me just don’t understand. And those that do understand don’t usually want to think about it. Mental illness is just such a frustrating subject. 🙁

    It’s part of what inspired me to start writing, as well. I’m determined to be as open as possible about what bipolar does to me and what it’s like parenting when half the time you have to be reminded to eat. Chances are that my kids will have this as well, and I want the world to be better prepared to help them if/when they get there.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story!

    1. I just went through something similar. I had been hospitalized for anxiety before and knew the signs. Working in health care during a pandemic finally got to me. I had just seen my dreams of going back into nursing (RN) crash b/c of anxiety. Three months later, I was having moderate panic attacks before work. I work as a HCA right now. Finally, I called sick for 2 wks on advice from my doctor. Even in my workplace, there were/ are those who display mistrust b/c I took time off. Trying to explain it was b/c of anxiety didn’t seem to help. Most knew already that I struggle w anxiety and my dreams being recently crushed. It was surprising to me they weren’t more supportive. I was lucky my boss and supervisor were empathetic. What a hard thing to do but I don’t regret taking care of myself. 2 mos later, I still feel in recover but healing. Thank you for your story.

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