“I am absolutely terrified, and I feel like I’m reduced to a childlike state.”

People who suffer from panic attacks confess that while they may know that they are not in any real danger, their bodies and minds tell them otherwise.

Panic and Anxiety Are Closely Linked

If you’re wondering what it feels like to have a panic attach, you may appreciate this post on The Mighty’s blog. Nicole Martin describes the overwhelming sensations that accompany a panic attack:

“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. Panic attacks are closely related to 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

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 Others Having a Panic Attack

Ms. Martin says she feels very fortunate that her family accepts her panic attacks, 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’ve wondered what it feels like to have a panic attack because you’re concerned that your anxiety has gotten out of control, we can help. Every day, we help adolescents and adults overcome panic disorder, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health conditions. While many people struggle with these issues, treatment works and can transform your life. Give us a call if you’d like to learn more.

Related Articles at Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program


  1. The Mighty: The 3 Stages of My Panic Attacks, by Nicole Martin. Retrieved January 10, 2017
  2. The Toll a Panic Attack Takes on My Mind and Body, by Audra Bothers. Retrieved January 10, 2017.
  3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Anxiety and Eating Disorders. Retrieved January 10, 2017.
  4. Eating Disorder HOPE: Anxiety and Eating Disorders, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC. Retrieved January 10, 2017.
  5. Eating Disorders Victoria: Eating Disorders, Anxiety and Depression. Retrieved January 10, 2017.