What does a panic attack feel like?

You can look up all kinds of definitions but they won’t tell you what it feels like inside to have a panic attack. To gain the slightest sense of it, you need to be willing to listen (and I mean really listen) to someone who has gone through it. So many of my clients who have suffered panic tell me that what makes it hard is that significant others and loved ones do not understand what they are going through. As a result, despite the best of intentions, friends and family end up saying things that make things worse, not better. Telling somebody who is prone to panic not to worry is about as effective as saying “Don’t think of a pink elephant!”. It only adds salt to a wound because people who panic know in a tiny part of their brain that what they are thinking is irrational. The problem is that in the midst of panic, it is the fight or flight part of the brain that has become activated, and once that happens, life and death thinking takes over.

Having a panic attack is a terrifying experience. It is awful to feel like you have been rendered helpless and totally out of control in the face of what your mind and body are doing. Everybody is different but some body symptoms include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, disorientation, lightheadedness, feelings of unreality and out of body type sensations. It is not uncommon for people having a panic attack to feel like they are going crazy or that they are going to die. The feelings of dread can be so powerful that some people literally throw up. Perhaps the worst part is that attacks are most often unpredictable; they come out of left field, with no trigger or warning. No wonder fear often fuels fear and people can begin to panic because they anticipate that a panic attack is just around the corner.

The aftermath of a panic attack is no fun either. Physically and emotionally, panic attacks are exhausting. The body has gone on emergency thus draining itself of all resources. It can take days for the person to recover and feel like herself again. The best way to describe it is to imagine what it would feel like if you literally had been in a life and death situation. For example, what would the aftermath feel like if you were caught in a house that had suddenly gone up in flames? Imagine how exhausted you would feel if this happened to you everyday, let alone several times a day!

Over the last twenty years, psychologists have learned a lot about how to help people prevent panic attacks from occurring. As much as people might like it to be so, it is seldom an overnight cure. Most people who suffer anxiety attacks have knowingly or unknowingly experienced a pile up of stress over a long period of time. It is not surprising then to learn that to undo this takes work, time and commitment. So the next time somebody close to you tells you that she suffers from panic, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to try to fix it. Just listen carefully and try not to dismiss or minimize what she is going through. The last message that she needs to hear is that she is being a baby, irrational or simply not trying hard enough. Ask her what she needs for support. Everybody is different and they are the best judge of what can be helpful. Some people just want to be left alone. Others feel reassured when someone else is there and can be calm. Sometimes, all the person needs is to know that you care while she rides through it doing the best she can.

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