What it feels like to have a panic attack

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When Elaine, a 32-year-old mother in Indiana, wakes up in the morning, the first thing she does is check on her two children and husband to make sure they are still breathing. There's no reason to believe they wouldn't be, and she knows this, but if she didn't check at that very moment, it could have been the minute that made all the difference. Steady breathing confirmed, she prepares for the rest of her day.

"As I dig through baskets of wrinkled laundry, I take frequent breaks to check on the sleeping beauties. In the shower, I think about the different and harmful chemicals in the soaps and shampoos, and I go through my day ahead of me. It's filled with lots of 'what-ifs' and concerns about others not appreciating something I've done," she says, walking us through her day-to-day thought process. "The next, and hardest-hitting, round of anxiety comes when I say goodbye and head to work. There have been mornings where I actually cry between the kisses and my car, certain that will be the last time I ever see my family. I try to, every morning, say something that could stick with them in the event I don't make it home, and I try not to ever promise anything for fear I won't come through."

This is what it's like to live with anxiety. At age 25, Elaine was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and at age 28, after her first panic attack, she was diagnosed with Panic Disorder.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 2 to 3 percent of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year — which experts describe as those who experience spontaneous, seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. And it's twice as common in women as in men.

What a Panic Attack Feels Like

After being assigned several different interim jobs at her workplace, Elaine said the stress must have taken a toll on her mental state, triggering her first panic attack. She was taken to the ER where, with a pulse in the 160s and a blood pressure of 180/50, her panic attack was confirmed.

"Physically, it's a fatal climax. It's somehow [feels like] both a slow and fast build-up to my own death. The time it takes feels like hours, but in reality, might be under 10 minutes," she says. "I came down from the panic sitting in that stark white room all by myself, and I feel like I can still remember every thought I had. The panic attacks continued, and after having to wait on an appointment with my psychiatrist, I returned and received the Panic Disorder diagnosis."

The shaking got worse, and I began to hyperventilate so I drove off of the highway and into a gas station where I collapsed.

Annette, a 43-year-old woman in Oregon, who has also been diagnosed with panic disorder, recalls her first panic attack also being triggered by stress. She'd just made a huge move and was dealing with the stress of being away from family and unable to find work. In a fit of anxiety-induced momentum, she packed her bags to drive home, not telling anyone because she felt ashamed of her perceived failure. While driving down the highway, her hands began to tremble.

"At first, I figured I was just a little nervous, though I had never shaken like that before. The shaking got worse, and I began to hyperventilate so I drove off of the highway and into a gas station where I collapsed," she says. "A fireman happened to be there and evaluated me, and after my blood pressure returned to normal they released me. It was a terrifying trip home. Later, after I was diagnosed, I realized I must have had at least 10 full-blown panic attacks before I made it to my parents' front doorstep."

What Causes a Panic Attack?

Everybody in the world experiences anxiety to some degree. In fact, feeling anxiety is a natural defense mechanism, as it's the body's way of alerting you when something is wrong.

  • It's emotional and physical. "When animals sense danger, the brain automatically stimulates a fear response that sends a message to our bodies in order to prepare us to fight, flee or freeze," explains Meredith Strauss, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating anxiety and depression. "Along with an emotional response, our bodies respond physiologically. Our heart rate increases, muscles tense, palms sweat, blood pressure rises and both adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone, rise in our bloodstream."
  • It can be triggered by something small. Normal anxiety may be triggered by something as simple as an encroaching deadline or new situation. The problem arises when someone cannot tell the difference between an ordinary, and ultimately non-harmful event, and one that involves true danger. "Anxiety can become debilitating when this happens regularly," says Strauss. "In serious cases, someone could begin to experience a panic attack despite the fact that there is no imminent danger. This may develop into an anticipation of the anxiety, which leads to pervasive thoughts about the potential of having an anxiety attack."
  • It's not one size-fits-all. She adds that panic attacks come in all shapes and sizes, and the triggers are different for each person. For example, some panic attacks are performance-related and people are triggered when they have to speak in front of others. Some are triggered by social situations, such as going to a new school, attending a networking event or a wedding, or going to a family gathering. Panic attacks may also be related to low self-esteem, a lack of coping skills, phobias or generally feeling like a situation is unsafe.

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