What my panic attacks feel like.

Chronic Anxiety is a mental illness that can bring with it painful, physical manifestations. In fact, when Anxiety turns into a full-blown panic attack, the suffering It inflicts on your body often feels unbearable.

The felt aspects of these attacks are numerous may differ from individual to individual. All the same, I thought it might be helpful to post various ways I physically experience them so that they can provide a window into how others with this mood disorder may feel.

The following are revised excerpts from my blog Prone to Hope (pronetohope):

I hate it when a panic attack freezes up my mind. It’s like my brain goes from being a functioning (happy) organ to a brick of cement —  immobilized, frozen in hyper-defense mode, preparing for the world to attack me.

Sometimes the transition from normal-brain to brick-brain is instantaneous. Sometimes it’s more gradual, which is even scarier. Imagine slowly sensing your brain harden from front to back and down to the base of your neck. As it begins, I know what’s happening, and doom readies me for what’s coming.

Then my throat clenches up. It’s physically hard to talk. It feels like I am crying, but the tears are pouring fire out of the backs of my eyes.

Then all the nerves from my shoulders up seem frayed at their ends.

It is a terrifying and sad place to be.

I’m having a panic attack. It started about 20 minutes ago with shortness of breath accompanied by the sensation that only the tops of my lungs were functioning. And then I felt my brain hardening, not quite brick-like, but more like a soft cement. And then, just a few minutes ago, my arms tightened, and my wrists’ nerve endings started exuding pain. Now, I can feel my heart racing.

Tonight a feeling returned:  the sense of Anxiety capturing my breath and turning it into pain. It rose from my lungs and took over my throat. If I had tried to talk, it would have been nearly impossible.

Throat constricted, my brain switched from normal to negative within the tick of a clock. Fear washed over me.

Why? This type of acute attack of Anxiety hasn’t hit me for well over six months. It’s out of nowhere. The timing of the onset seems so random. And that randomness accentuates the fear. When will it strike again?

I feel incapable, embarrassed, less-than, damaged.

Scariest is when Anxiety turns the oxygen I breathe in into an incredibly heavy gas. Imagine inhaling something so heavy that each of your lungs feels like they weigh a ton and lose any elasticity. Anxiety has decided to show me what a spiritual possession — if I believed in that — might be like, and It had taken residence in my chest.

Sometimes extreme panic attacks hit me in the morning just as I am getting ready to leave for work. In addition to physical/emotional experience, I often get drenched in sweat. I mean that. I go from slightly agitated to completely freaked out. My shirt clings to my upper body because of how wet it is. The upper part of the back of my pants and the full waistband become damp. I must change shirts. It’s a judgment call on the pants. Brick-brain and frayed nerves accompanied by clothing that clings to my body feel disgusting and terrifying. I hate myself.

The physical pain manifests in many ways; the following are three of them. The most common sensation I have is the impression that a tightening, constrictive band is crushing my chest; it labors my breathing. The next level of pain feels like someone is choking me or my throat is collapsing upon itself. At its worst, the panic attack heaps on additional pain to one or both of the sensations above. Sometimes I feel as if every nerve in my body has frayed ends and is burning.

My chest is tight, with my sternum weighed down as if a heavy dumbbell is attached to it. My breathing is irregular. The fascia of my neck and scalp feel taut and twisted. My brain feels like it’s crushing into itself.

Emotionally, I’m feeling inadequate — like a fraud. Intellectually, I’m questioning my every action and interaction.

My head started spinning. I blurted out some unhelpful sentences. I then wrapped myself into a protective shell as I felt the world spinning around me. I saw the conversation I had been a part of was continuing without me. I imagined — perhaps accurately — that the others knew not to say anything to me.

Sometimes I heard the words of the conversation outside my cocoon. If those words overwhelmed me, I just continued looking straight forward or at my feet, trying to maintain an inward — not outward — panic. Sometimes I would hear the words of the conversation outside my cocoon and agree with them. I tried to appear still a part of things. So I’d nod my head.

Conversation done. Walk to my car. Turn on the vehicle. Stay warm. Cry.

I had a bit of time before I had to engage with the rest of the world again. I got to calm my mind and leave the panic behind. I texted my wife. That helped incredibly.

Later on, I engaged with the world minimally.

Once I got home, I collapsed and silently cried myself to sleep.

Thankfully, it’s been some time since I’ve experienced a panic attack. My hope is for others who live with chronic Anxiety not to have to suffer through them too much as well.