a boy hiding under cushions on a counch
Mental Illness

What Does A Panic Attack Look Like

I’ve always been one to have anxiety. Even as a toddler, I refused to speak because in my perfectionism; I wanted to make sure I got the words right. As I got older and started getting in trouble in middle school, I heard that I’d been diagnosed with depression. Being only moderately self aware, I said to myself, “I don’t have depression. What I have is nervousness.” What I called “nervousness” is known in our field as anxiety. I have an anxiety disorder, but I did not know that at this point.

Later, in high school, I found that sometimes I was so anxious I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what that meant, and I certainly didn’t tell anyone about it. My understanding of it was that I must be so depressed that my body was taking it into its own hands and trying to kill itself. This struggle to breathe tended to last a few seconds at a time, and I gave it a name: “The Agony”. I never wrote it down back then, but I always know that the “A” in “Agony” was capitalized.

A few years later, I entered into Recovery of my mental illness. I came to understand and accept that I have bipolar disorder, but I still didn’t know much about anxiety. The Agony got less of my attention. I don’t know for sure if that’s because it stopped for a time, or if I was simply more focused on other symptoms.

Around the time I turned 30, I found that I often was gasping for breath. It didn’t seem to have an emotional component to it. I just sometimes struggled to breathe. I was quitting smoking at the time, so in hindsight that may have been related. I did not, at that time, make this connection. Later, when I was getting looked at for a sleep study, I mentioned it, and they asked if I had a panic disorder. I didn’t recall being diagnosed with such a thing, but it seemed to fit. The gasping for air must be related to The Agony, just without the immediate emotional feeling of anxiety on the surface.

Later, I experienced what truly felt like panic attacks. They might last for an hour or two, but they were powerful. Everything felt absolutely impossible. I felt that nothing would ever work out. I would be paralyzed with fear. I would physically writhe in horrible emotional pain. I wanted to scream, but I stopped myself because I didn’t want to make a scene. All these things, I tended to do in the privacy of my room so as not to bother others or be seen. After one of those serious panic attacks, I am generally pretty worn out, and often have to take a nap. The physical feeling of this style of panic attack was very high muscle tension in every inch of my body. It was far worse than The Agony, but now I understand it to be an extension of the same thing.

These are all very different feelings and experiences, but they are all panic and anxiety. For most of my life, I didn’t know that these were all panic attacks. The good news is that with continual self improvement and effort, they can become less frequent and they are possible to overcome. Even though I still get panic attacks from time to time, I can function and move on. As horrifying as they are, they are not the end of me.

I hope this has been enlightening. I know I would have benefitted from knowing about the different forms of anxiety and panic at a younger age. I turn to you, Gentle Readers, to tell me whether you’ve ever experienced a panic attack like one of the types I mentioned. Or maybe in a different form. If you have not, what is your reaction to reading of such experiences? Is it as strange to you as it initially was to me?

Image by ambermb from Pixabay

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