What happens during a panic attack? I always find it refreshing to read new posts on Reddit from people experiencing their first panic attack. So many body systems engage that it’s hard to know what causes what. I just had one the other day and would like to share my symptoms which I hope will help others feel assured that they’re not alone.
What tipped me off was bubbling in my stomach, which was my digestive system doing its thing since I had just picked up some food and was walking home. This didn’t feel right for various reasons but I’ll focus just on symptoms for this post. Upon encountering people on the sidewalk my heart palpitations started going. I can hear them in my head and feel them in my chest. Placing my hand over my chest, I could feel the bumping.
Then I tend to have nervous twitches or tingling that I sometimes feel in the chest and sides especially. Really this is just increased blood flow, but because you are going from zero to running, you notice it a lot more versus if you were to actually build up to it while doing cardio.
My hands get cold and slightly clammy. This is where I often my mind escalates the situation because it aligns with Dr. Google’s diagnosis. I’ll often squeeze my hands as if to pump blood back into them, but the body has already diverted blood to the core.
By now I’m walking pretty darn fast and trying to find a safe haven, which for me is usually getting home. Ironic, since if this were a big problem, going home wouldn’t do much.
Sometimes our own behaviors during panic attacks cause symptoms. For me I tend to hyperventilate by overbreathing and not exhaling enough. The symptoms I get from this are tingling at the edge of my hands below the pinky. If its severe, the hands will curl like lobster claws.
The feeling of shortness of breath tends to wax and wane, and in many ways is mostly in my head since I can honestly take a full breath. More so the muscles are so tense and engaged that I get the sense I can’t breathe. Ironically after my surgery I was legitimately unable to take full breaths for an entire month and truly understood what being winded was.
That’s about it for me. The funny thing is always the symptoms I don’t have. Dizziness and lightheadedness always pop at the top of symptom lists but I have never felt dizzy while standing or sitting, unless I was on an airplane or a car going down a winding hill. Chills and trembling can happen only afterwards while I’m generally calm and coming down. Sense of terror is also an interesting one, I think I do have this but it is very well defined as “something could happen to me, very unlikely, so let’s just make sure we’re in a safe place.”
Obviously if panic attacks happen in inconvenient places like a work meeting (which it has), I have to suck it up and let it roll. At it’s worst during 2020 I was having panic attacks every two weeks but typically it was anywhere from 2-3 months at a time. It’s even happened on a beautiful vacation which is a story for another time.