Updated: May 5
What does a Panic Attack feel like?
Have you ever wondered if what you’re experiencing is a panic attack? Have you ever googled “What are the symptoms of a panic attack?” Or “How to deal with a panic attack?” Quite possibly, that’s what brought you here today. It’s a pretty common search, actually. I only know because I looked it up. I wanted to know if I was alone. If I was the only one who googled that shit. Am I crazy? Is it all in my head? Can I just get over it like they said? Does medication really not work?
While I can’t talk about the medication part as I’ve never taken it, and I don’t have a real opinion one way or the other. I view it as “Do what’s best for yourself, and I won’t judge you for it, and neither should anyone else.” Check out what McDeath thinks here, she is a counselor, afterall.
Talking about mental health every day has changed some things in my life. Of course, it has helped me develop coping skills but it has also helped me understand what I’m going through more in the moment. During my last panic attack, I wished I could get my frozen fingers to write so you could have a raw account of what it was like to go through.
We all go through things. Our lives are rarely event free. Sometimes, people are able to avoid most of the negative experiences, but some of us are not so lucky. Some of us go through the ringer and come out chewed up the other side.
I should specify, I have anxiety that leads to panic attacks, I am not sure what it’s like to go through a Panic DIsorder. Which basically means I’m one of the people who saw some shit, and it changed me. Literally. Not just emotionally and mentally, but my brain chemistry actually changed. As it does for anyone with anxiety.
Have you heard of the amygdala? It’s the part of the brain that processes emotionally salient experiences, and initiates the applicable behavior in reaction. So, you see a hot chick (Or guy), and decide she (or they) might be worth stuffing your fear aside and talking to her? Or, you see a hot chick and run away because the fear is so strong? That’s the amygdala. The information actually reaches this part of your brain before you’re done noticing her tight top.
This whole process is what allows us to act quickly in fearful situations. It’s actually a pretty useful tool handed to us by evolution. Say, you’re on a hike and you hear a rattlesnake right by the trail. Your amygdala takes over, you put yourself between the snake and your partner and RUN. Think later, she will even think you’re pretty heroic. ;)
It’s handy when there’s a direct threat. It’s a bit inconvenient when someone looks at you in the same tone as your abuser (yes you read that right), and you drop to your knees in a panic attack, thinking you’re right back in the middle of it. This is what’s called a "Trauma Response". Though the threat is long gone, possibly for years or even decades, you feel like it’s starting all over again.
So the age old question: “Can I just get over it like they say I can?” No, not like that. You can’t just change anything about your behavior. It takes work, dedication, and a commitment to resilience. You can do it, though. It might not ever look perfect, or “normal” like other people, but you can get to the point where you can manage your anxiety and work your way out of panic attacks.
Panic attacks don’t have a universal feeling for everyone. People vary, so it’s natural their reactions will vary as well. The symptoms described are either ones I’ve felt myself, my kids have felt, Death’s client’s described her, or I found them in the DSM-5 (because if it’s in there, enough people definitely feel it).
You might be experiencing panic attacks if;
Your vision tunnels. It can get down to a pinpoint sometimes, and with your eyes open, you may not always be able to see.
Your breathing intensifies. Quicker, shallower breaths that leave you feeling like you need more oxygen feeding the vicious cycle.
Your mouth, fingers, and toes could go numb. Sometimes you can’t feel them at all, sometimes they cramp up with intense pain, rarely they feel fine, but you never really know what it will be like this time.
The only thing you can hear is anything irritating (like water dripping), or your own mind spinning lies that drive the panic attack. Usually along the lines of “This will never change. Your life will always be this way. I won’t get better, only worse. If it gets any worse you will die. It’s getting worse, so you’re about to die.”
A stranger may misunderstand this for “drama”.
Sometimes it’s not dying that is the major fear, it’s that you’re crazy.
You might feel sea-sick on dry land. You might even blow chunks.
It’s common to get hot flashes. Your body disperses your blood for flight, so being hot makes a lot of sense.
Elephants' favorite chair is your chest.
You could shake. Like you haven’t eaten all day, but tried working out type shakes.
You will probably sweat. I can’t tell you how many showers have been dedicated to washing the panic away.
Your heart thumps faster than Thumper when he sees Miss Bunny. My watch warns me when my heart rate reaches 120bpm or more. It happens when I don’t even feel weird.
You’re probably here because like me, when you google coping skills, everything goes back to yoga and meditation. While those skills may help some people, they’re not for everyone. I personally don’t really like yoga. I do love meditation, but feel like I don’t ever have time for it. I know, only 2 mins a day makes a difference, but try remembering 2 mins a day. Meditation definitely has its drawbacks, though. I don’t know about you, but I personally can’t get my zen on in the middle of feeling like I’m dying.
So, if you need some arrows for your Villain Esteem quiver when it comes to Panic Attacks, here are some things that have helped me. Some of them were taught to me throughout the years in counseling sessions, some of them I came up with to cope myself, and some of them I invented to help my children with their anxieties.
Panic Deep Coping Skills
Counting the first thing you see.
Old ladies walking
Dots on the ceiling
Cracks in the sidewalk
Clovers in the grass
Try to pick things that don’t necessarily irritate you, you want to find your chill, and you can’t do that if you’re picking out your pet peeves. It doesn’t have to be “positive” but it should at least be “neutral”.
Inhale as deeply as you can. Sometimes, that’s not even at a full 1 count, but make sure to count.
Exhale, and take twice as long. Even if you can’t get it on the first try, keep trying. Yes, sometimes this will only be for a 2 count, and that’s ok.
Repeat until you can get to 15 count on your inhale, and exhaling that long is no longer possible hahaha.
Chill your shit
Literally. Hahaha. Grab an icepack and put it right on your face. If your face gets cold, move it around to the nape of your neck or chest. This shocks your system right out of the panic attack. Sure, it's not snap fast all the time, but it gets the job done. If you like the science behind why things work; When you enter a panic attack, your brain thinks you're going to die, so it prepares you for the worst. Your blood is pushed out to your arms and legs getting you ready to fight, or flee. Putting the ice on your face creates a diver response. Which essentially tells all your systems to slow down and then redirects your blood back from your extremities to your core giving you the chance to get your wits about you.
Sounds just like it is. Wrap yourself up in a blanket. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, you can drape it over your shoulders, over your head so you can’t see anything. You could lay down and burrito yourself into it. You could lay down and drape it over yourself, or curl it up between your legs in the fetal position. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Weighted Blankets are Worth Their Weight
Rubber Band Man
Imagine all of your muscles are rubber bands. Starting with your toes, tighten the rubber band muscles of your toes, feet, and ankles. Hold them tight for a count of 10, then slowly release them (you don’t want to snap your foot! jokes), at the count of 3. Continue this process with each part of your body. Take your tongue off the roof of your mouth, release your shoulders from your ears, and breathe, bitch.
Take a Trip Down Memory Lane
Sometimes it’s hard to remember the good things in the moment, so this one might take a little bit of pre-planning. Get a piece of paper, or a note in your phone and write out a couple memories that can be summed up in 3-5 words. Pick words that are sure to get your attention.
It sounds so plain, but by drinking, you actually slow down that reptilian part of your brain that freaks out when you’re triggered. A dog wouldn’t stop to lap up a puddle in the middle of a bitch fight right?
Drown Out the World
While normally, this would be too basic for my list, I didn’t try this one for a long time because I didn’t think it would work. Put some headphones in, and blast some Heavy Metal. Don’t go for the happy, upbeat shit, skip the classical, and go straight for the Screamo. Even if you don’t like the music, try it. You will be surprised how much it helps. If it still seems too much, try Hard Rock instead.
Dogs <> Cats
Liquid <> Solid
Black <> White
Panic <> Chill
Pick a color, then name alphabetically in that color, without naming the color. “Can be”, counts.
Solve Someone Else’s Problem
If you think it’s something you can do in the moment, try to imagine your problems are your best friends’. What would you say to them? If you can, actually solve a real life problem for someone, it is an excellent distraction.
I hate the term “Self-Care” because it’s so overused in all the wrong ways. If you google “self-care” you will see the beauty industry repackaged. Self-care is actually about creating a life you don’t want to run away from. Sometimes that may be taking a bath, but sometimes it’s sitting down and doing your taxes.
Scribble anywhere. If you don’t have paper and a pen, you can take a screenshot and scribble on top of it. Be random, don’t look if you have to. Once your masterpiece feels complete (you can delete/erase and start over if you want), look between the lines and see what you see.
Taking note of these things does help with introspection in the future, but sometimes there's just not time for that, and that’s ok.
Ok, no one likes paperwork, but even if it’s a quick note in your phone, or event in your calendar taking note of your panic attacks will help you see patterns you never knew existed. If you really want to get into it, get access to our Free Panic Attack Track Therapy Worksheet.
Consider Mental Health SubBoxes
I definitely didn’t write this blog to talk about our SubBoxes, but now I’m at the end of it, and need just one more coping skill to make my list of 15 complete, and I can’t keep my mind off of them. Most “Mental Health SubBoxes” you will find are just bath bombs, facial masks, and maybe a self-reflection prompt packaged with pink, purple, or tiffany-blue tissue paper.
Let me put your mind at ease. Ours are nothing like that. You will see dark colors, skulls, and products from small-businesses that tie in with our Licensed Mental Health Counselor (MS, LMHC, NCC, LCPC) curated resources that will aid in the Self-Vigilance talked about above, not limited to spa days and beauty tips.
All coping skills are worth a try for both panic and anxiety attacks, but if you aren’t sure which is better to describe what is happening to you, read more here.
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