Anatomy of a panic attack

It always starts out small… or seemingly so.  That one last trigger that pushes you over the edge… some threat to safety… the hint of a flashback… a confrontation at work…


The heart starts to race… you feel it pounding and hear the blood rushing in your head.  Breathing feels impossible… like you’re breathing through a straw… but, it doesn’t matter anyway, because you don’t have any lungs… your breath goes no where, it’s just an activity for your mouth to do out of habit. You put your hand on your stomach to try and force yourself to actively breathe deeply… but your stomach muscles move purely on reflex.

Fuzziness hits… lips tingle… then the rest of your face.  Palms sweaty and no longer associated with your body.  Legs disconnected and unable to move.

And the noise…

Screaming internally… strong voices trying to cut through the chatter.  All to no avail.  It’s lost in the torrent of chatter and screaming.

You feel the dissociation pull… but it doesn’t happen soon enough.  A door has opened into the hell inside your head and there’s no going back.  No longer adult… now a seething mass of voices screaming out in pain.

Just stop the heart… don’t slow it down, stop it.  Anything for relief…

The tightness travels across your chest into your arms… the clinical side of you wonders if this is a heart attack.

Head swimming and mushy now… the screaming echoing around.

But always, hypervigilant of what’s going on around you… you back slowly to a wall… scanning the room for any threat.  Trying to contain the crazy and appear normal… please don’t let anyone notice…

Noise jars you into a startle response…

Your movements become stilted… every muscle aches from tension.  Your body is ready to sprint for safety, but it doesn’t know which way to go.

Time warps… seeming to slow down, yet race at the same time… it feels as if this moment will never end.

Then, mercifully… you feel the Earth tilt… yes… blissful oblivion.

Blackness of dissociation… feeling the rush of the protectors coming forward… slowly the noise fades away.

Sleep… blissful sleep.  Only to wake an hour later as if coming out of a cotton wool cocoon… your voice is a little louder than usual.  But that’s understandable, because you feel as if you’re looking out at the world from about 5 paces behind your eyes.

The noise from the outside world echoes around in your head…

Nothing seems real.  Derealisation settles in… your hands belong to someone else, colours seem brighter and everything is disjointed.

Drugs… too late for the panic attack, but it might help with the derealisation.  A fear that the protectors took some during the dissociation… you start to second guess yourself.  But you can’t go on like this, so risk the drugs anyway.

Covert looks around… no one sees you popping the pills.  Just breathe…

Finally you feel that rush of air go into your lungs… the big ball of tightness at the top of your chest slowly eases…

Slowly, the automatic actions ease and control returns.

But there’s still that nagging fear… it will be worse next time… someone will see next time… you can’t do that again…

Internally the chaos is stamped back down… layers of dissociation bury the screaming… different ones are returned to their cells… locked away and ignored…

Until next time…

Now playing: Natalie Merchant – My Skin
via FoxyTunes


11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a panic attack

  1. Wow!!! You are an excellent writer! You capture the moment so well!!! So, how did it feel to write this?

    • Thanks 🙂 This was a panic attack in response to some stuff at work. I was trying to describe the crazy-making feeling of it all, but it didn’t come out quite right. Panic is like being caught in the rapids of storm engorged river. I hate it, but live with it almost daily.

      Take care,

  2. Pingback: The big stuff | Scattered pieces

  3. wow, i’ve never heard anyone describe dissociation and panic attacks so vividly. i have a lot of generalized anxiety but that feels more like feeling on edge, alert, tense and fearful. what you go through sounds far more scary. i’m sorry you go through that. my ex had panic attacks but was never good at articulating what that felt like. thank you for sharing your experience. i’m glad to have greater understanding for what that feels like to someone.

    • I’m glad it helped in some way Katie… Anxiety is such an awful, debilitating experience. It’s also quite hard to explain in words what can feel so overwhelming and out of control…

      Take care,

  4. Castorgirl. When someone writes something like this that so accurately describes phenomena we experience, it’s like striking gold! Thank you so much for this contribution! I know it’s painful.

    So, I will ask: Was it helpful for you to write this? And then share it with others?

    • Thanks Paul. It was helpful in some way… It definitely helped to write it down and analyse the different stages of the attack – this might help me to know when to take medication to help stop it progressing further. I’m not so sure about sharing it with others, but it helped to know that Katie got some understanding from it.

      Take care,

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