This Is What a Panic Attack Feels Like and How You Can Treat It

This Is What a Panic Attack Feels Like and How You Can Treat It
Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

Anxiety doesn't care if you're out having a good time with your friends, or whether it's a really inconvenient time to start hyperventilating. A panic attack is a sudden and acute sense of panic, and can creep up out of nowhere. Before you know it, you're in the midst of a debilitating and terrifying hysteria.

A panic attack is far different from the general stress you might feel about work or school, and distinguishes itself from the general existential dread most of us feel when, say, waking up on a Monday morning facing a week of work. 

Instead, panic attacks include overwhelming feelings of nervousness, restlessness and fear that can't necessarily be traced to any one trigger, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Read more: How to Deal With Anxiety in the Words of People Who Have Battled and Studied It for Years

What does a panic attack feel like?

Though she wasn't referring to a panic attack, author Jenny Offill might have best described the single thought that often plays on repeat when experiencing one in this section of her book Dept. of Speculation:

Source: Marie Solis/Mic

But it's not all in your head — attacks can also come with a medley of super fun physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, feeling like you're about to faint or vomit — or both — sweating, shortness of breath and blurred vision, according to Medical Daily.

Bottom line: It feels like drowning.

Photographer Katie Joy Crawford shot a series of self-portraits transforming her experience with anxiety into into a body of artwork. The series, called My Anxious Heart, explores the different symptoms of anxiety, showing Crawford submerged in a bathtub, trapped in an hourglass and lying next to a looming, amorphous figure. 

In her blog, Crawford described her body going into "fight or flight mode" and her mind sending her the message, "GET OUT NOW." In another post Crawford talked about how anxiety can sneak up on you at unexpected moments. "It finds you when you're in the midst of joy, or alone in your own mind," she wrote. "It is quiet and steady, reminding you of your past failures, and fabricating your future outcomes."

Source: Giphy

What causes a panic attack?

According to Medical Daily, panic attacks likely correspond to abnormal functions in the brain's amygdala, the region primarily responsible for processing fear. 

Paul Li — a cognitive science lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley — explained in Scientific American that the sympathetic nervous system "revs up" during panic attacks, as it's meant to in situations that demand a fight-or-flight response. But when the parasympathetic nervous system intervenes to calm you down, if it's "somehow unable to do its job," Li wrote, "a person will remain fired up and may experience the heightened arousal characteristic of a panic attack."

Reassuring, we know.

Anxiety attacks can be a one-time-only thing, but if they happen recurrently or are accompanied by persistent feelings of anxiety that take a toll on everyday life, attacks could be a signal of an anxiety disorder

The good news is if you experience either, you're not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health reported 18.1% of the U.S. population has an anxiety disorder, making it one of the most pervasive mental illnesses in the country. The ADAA reported General Anxiety Disorder affects 3.1% of the population.

How do you treat an anxiety attack?

There are a number of ways to manage ongoing anxiety. Experts recommend limiting alcohol and caffeine, trying downward dog or even just hugging a dog (even though the dog may hate it). But in the throes of a full-blown panic attack, you may want to say "fuck you" to even the cutest of puppies. 

While it may be instinctive to immediately try to talk yourself down from a panic attack, Everyday Health emphasized the first step is actually recognizing your symptoms and accepting the attack. Even if, at first, it feels like this: 

Source: Giphy

And, in the name of validating your feelings of impending doom, writing down the thoughts and sensations you're experiencing can help them feel less catastrophic, according to Everyday Health.

"Grounding" strategies can also be key in coping with a panic attack, and go hand-in-hand with paying attention to your body's sensations. "Feeling your feet on the ground, or your hands on the steering wheel, or bracing yourself against a wall" can keep you present since panic attacks are responses to "a past action or to a future event," Linda Esposito, a psychotherapist, wrote for Psychology Today.

It can also help just to get moving. Panic attacks can feel like having uncontainable energy, so doing some jumping jacks or taking a walk can help rid yourself of it, according to the Psychology Today column.

No matter what methods you choose, breathing is crucial. Take slow, deep breaths while relaxing your muscles. While you do, the Psychology Today column has some real talk to keep in mind. "As scary as panic attacks are," Esposito wrote, "your track record for overcoming panic is 100%. There's always an end in sight, and you will reach the calm side eventually."

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Marie Solis

Marie is a staff writer with a focus in feminist issues. Her writing has appeared in Gothamist and the Awl. You can reach her at marie@mic.com.

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