What It Feels Like to Have a Panic AttackFind Out What It Feels Like to Have a Panic Attack

People who suffer from panic attacks confess that while they may know they are not in any real danger, their bodies and minds tell them otherwise. “I am absolutely terrified, and I feel like I’m reduced to a childlike state,” one woman says. “Throughout the years, I’ve looked for a clear explanation of what others have experienced within their own panic attacks to better understand them myself,” Nicole Martin writes in a recent article for TheMighty.com. “Yet with every explanation I read, I would only get a list of symptoms and no personal expression. I’d just get lists- hyperventilating, sweating, fear overwhelming them. Although these are valuable examples, I was looking for something more in-depth. So I decided to write about my own experience within my attacks.”

Anxiety and eating disorders

Anxiety disorders and eating disorders are often related. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a survey conducted in 2004 revealed that more than two thirds of the people in the U.S. with eating disorders also struggled with anxiety disorders, long before they developed their eating disorders. The ADAA says research indicates that anxiety disorders typically precede eating disorders.

OCD, PTSD, and EDs

OCD, or Obsessive-compulsive disorder is the most common anxiety disorder to co-occur with an ED, says the ADAA. People with these two disorders frequently construct obsessive rituals with food. They may weigh every item they eat, cut their meals into small pieces, or engage in binge eating. Studies also found that the risk of bulimia is significantly higher for women with PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder. Social anxiety disorders often co-exist with eating disorders as well.

What Causes Anxiety Disorders?

Eating Disorders Victoria, a public mental health agency in Australia, reports that a combination of factors are generally believed to trigger anxiety disorders. These may include:

  • A family history of mental health problems
  • Stressful life events
  • Ongoing physical illness
  • Personality factors

How If Feels

In her post on The Mighty’s blog, Nicole Martin describes the overwhelming sensations that accompany her panic disorder this way: “Imagine sitting at dinner with your family at a favorite restaurant, celebrating a family member’s birthday. Balloons, gifts and laughter all around and all you can think to yourself is, ‘Please don’t have a panic attack right now.’ This is how my husband’s family found out I have panic disorder. My panic disorder has caused me to cancel plans with my family out of fear for another attack and fear of those around me being embarrassed.” Along with her panic disorder, Ms. Martin says she has also struggled with self-harm, PTSD, addiction, anorexia, and depression.

Physical Sensations

When you suffer from panic attacks, the physical effects are often so intense that they overwhelm the mind, adds Audra Bothers in another post for The Mighty, an online resource for mental health issues. “The sound of my racing heartbeat is deafening,” she says. “I’m pretty sure -no, I am 100 percent certain- my heart is about to pound itself right out of my chest. The room is starting to spin, and everything is closing in on me before I can react. Sounds and movement are amplified beyond normal recognition. It’s nearly impossible to process what’s happening around me.”

“My throat feels like it’s closing, which is absolutely terrifying. If I can’t get more air soon, then I’m afraid I am going to suffocate,” Ms. Bothers writes. “My chest is constricting. With each passing moment, it feels tighter and tighter. My legs are like Jell-O. If I try to move them, then I just know they will give in on me. I’m afraid I’ll collapse. So I find a wall to lean against for support, or I plop down on the ground. The rest of my body feels funny, too. Everything is surreal, and I feel as though I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t feel like I actually own my body or can control any of it.”

Flight or Fight

When her body goes into a ‘flight or fight’ mode, Ms. Bothers says she often loses the ability to move. “My reaction depends on the circumstances, although I usually freeze at first,” she says. “Then, I fight until I get enough strength back in my legs to engage in flight. My legs finally support me and carry me away from the (incorrectly) perceived danger as my mind races a million miles an hour and screams with questions and blame.”

The stages of panic

In her article, Nicole Martin breaks her panic attacks down to the following three stages:

The Fog

“When an attack is in its earliest stage, I enter a sort of mental fog or blur. If I am reading a sign, I know what I am seeing is numbers or letters. However, my brain cannot process them. I cannot follow what I am trying to read and lose focus quickly. Sounds around me become static-like, as if they’re all jumbled and indistinguishable. For instance, when you are fully submerged underwater and it’s raining out, you might hear the raindrops hitting the water, but you’re unable to pinpoint where they’re coming from. Or like the game you play as kids in the pool. You talk to each other underwater and try and guess what the other is saying.”

Senses Awry

“As my hearing starts to get muffled, my fingertips have grown numb and my stomach feels cold, as if I hadn’t eaten in days. My mouth is dry, and I get an iron taste in my mouth, as if I were just sucking on a dirty penny for the last hour. In this stage, my husband has noticed from an outside perspective that I’m within the onset of a panic attack. According to his description, I’m expressionless, and my responses become delayed or I don’t respond at all. I’m almost zombie-like. As my brain begins to catch up with the rest of my body, I enter fight-or-flight mode, with fight stuck on max. My heart rate rises rapidly and my breathing becomes labored, entering the hyperventilation phase. Within seconds it becomes difficult to breathe, my legs weaken and I can barely keep myself upright.”


“This final stage tends to last from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the circumstances prior to the onset. At this point, my body manages to both collapse and yet stiffen, with my arms clenched to my chest. It feels like I lose control of my muscles as I begin to shiver uncontrollably -but this is not a seizure, it is shivering. It’s as if someone has thrown me into a freezer, and yet I’m sweating at the same time. And in my head, it’s as if there’s a horribly filmed home movie from my childhood stuck on a sort of fast-forward/repeat mode of the abuse I suffered in my childhood. During this stage, I tend to partially blackout. I can still hear what’s going on around me and see, but I cannot remember exactly what’s happened or how much time has passed after I’ve come out of my episode. I just remember bits of sounds and people’s faces.”

How to Help a Loved One

Ms. Martin says she feels very fortunate that her family accepts her behavior disorder, and has learned how to help her during these episodes. “It is with my husband’s calming voice that I can safely return to reality and know I’m safe. Lend a hand or an ear,” she urges her readers. “Most importantly, practice compassion. You may not be able to tell, but your presence and compassion can go a long way.”

Need More Help?

If you feel that you may be suffering from an anxiety or eating disorder, or both, call Center for Discovery today at 800.760.3934. We’ve been helping families find their way to long lasting healing and recovery for 20 years. Our personalized behavior modification programs are tailored to fit your needs. Center for Discovery provides comprehensive, cutting edge coping skills for adults, adolescents, and teens that are struggling with anxiety disorders, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm behaviors, gender identity issues, and most major mental health disorders.

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The Mighty: The 3 Stages of My Panic Attacks, by Nicole Martin. Retrieved January 10, 2017

The Toll a Panic Attack Takes on My Mind and Body, by Audra Bothers. Retrieved January 10, 2017.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Anxiety and Eating Disorders. Retrieved January 10, 2017.

Eating Disorder HOPE: Anxiety and Eating Disorders, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC. Retrieved January 10, 2017.

Eating Disorders Victoria: Eating Disorders, Anxiety and Depression. Retrieved January 10, 2017.