What Panic Feels Like

During my years of struggle with anxiety, I experienced countless panic attacks. People often ask me what a panic attack feels like, so I thought I'd share with you one of my most haunting memories. This was the first time I had a panic attack while riding a crowded train in Chicago.

Running late for work one morning, I frantically raced up two flights of stairs to catch a departing train to downtown. Still catching my breath, my heart continued to beat quickly. The train was very crowded and I was shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers. As I stood amongst the crowd I suddenly noticed that my heart hadn't slowed down. Out of nowhere, I could feel dread and panic beginning to fill my mind. “What if I can't slow my heart beat down? Oh, God! Not again!” My symptoms grew worse. My breathing became rapid and shallow, my heart pounded and my legs turned to jelly. I was in complete panic.

I tried to take my mind off the fact that I was having a breakdown in front of an entire trainload of people. Seconds were hours. I prayed under my breath. I opened my workbag, searching for a distraction. With my heart pounding through my chest, the train finally pulled up to the next stop. I assumed everyone in the train car was aware that I was extremely anxious. I wanted to get out, but then again, if I got out after one stop, wouldn't that arouse more suspicion? Wouldn't it be obvious that I was terrified and having a panic attack and was a total weirdo who didn't belong there?

As the doors slid open, even more people crammed in. I could barely move an arm, we were so tightly packed together. The loudspeaker rang once again, triggering a reaction. I bolted out the door and onto the platform, escaping the train. The doors closed and the train sped away. In a few minutes, I calmed down, but my legs were weak and my entire body was trembling. I felt worthless and rejected. What a coward I had been! I was so upset that I called in sick to work that day.

The most devastating aspect of a panic attack is the psychological damage it can inflict. After this incident, my self-confidence dropped to an all-time low, and it would be nearly one year until I could muster up the courage to ride the train again. However, this story does have a happy ending. Using simple techniques, I systematically faced and overcame my worst fears, including riding crowded public transportation and public speaking.

  • Michael T. McComb

    How I could relate to this article! I too, have experienced severe panic attacks. Everything you mentioned about the attacks I could relate to.

    I would actually drive myself to the hospital or call an ambulance because I really believed I was dying. While at the hospital they would shoot me up with a sedative to calm my heart, hook me up to the EKG, run blood tests, monitor me overnight, etc.... The tests would always come back as negative. Thats when they diagnosed me with severe panic disorder. They tried to medicate me but I wouldn't allow it. I am proud in the fact that I faced this tremendous fear head on. It was not easy though. The attacks would leave me trembling, like you said, crying and shaking like a leaf. The end of an attack was such a major relief, though. Because it was at this time that you knew it was only an attack and that your life was no longer in danger.

    I still face anxiety at times. It is pretty random with sometimes lengthy intervals. But, sometimes, I will get that little voice in my head that says, " You are dying right now! Hurry up and make everything right because your time is up! Hurry!!! Hurry!!!!!!!!!" At times it can debilitate me, but, I am more often now able to recognize it as anxiety and talk back to the voice. I will usually say to it, "You are not real. I am not dying. I am healthy and I am not ready to go. I am ok." It has been about two years since my last full-fledged panic attack.

    I read something online one time that helped me out during the time of my panic episodes. The person wrote something that went like this, "When faced with a panic attack, try to remind yourself that you will be fine once it is over. Remember that it will pass and you will be ok. Once the attack is over, you will be standing there alive just like you were before. You will be fine.''

    Thank you for sharing your experience,

    Michael T. McComb

    (P.S.- The pros say this stems from the fight or flight part of the primitive brain that goes out of wack for some unknown reason, or at least that's what I've heard. Does anyone know if there is new information out there as to what might cause this? Any new research or new findings? Thanks.)

  • Priscilla Warner

    Thank you for this piece, and for all of your writing. When I experienced my first panic attack 40 years ago, the word panic attack didn't exist. I thought I was dying. Now I am here to tell the tale and try to help people. There are so many resources out there and I thank you for this one...I have some on my blog, where you can follow my progress as I try to meditate my way from panic to peace:


  • Steve Pavilanis

    Priscilla - I too have found meditation to be a wonderful relaxing and life-changing practice, and I encourage others to experiment with it as well.

    Michael - Oh how I can relate to your post! I can't tell you how many times I ended up in the emergency room enduring tests only to find out it was "stress and anxiety" as the doctors put it. I'm glad you have overcome your struggles naturally, as I've found medication only really treats the symptoms, not the causes of anxiety.


    Steve Pavilanis

  • Telephone Panic

    I empathize. It's seriously a feeling of sheer terror that escalates with every little physiological or cognitive symptom. They're so difficult to deal with -- especially when you're out in public and you perceive escape to be difficult or embarrassing. The frequency of my panic attacks goes through cycles, but lately, I've been having at least a mild one every single day at work.

    So, I started a weird little self-therapy project at http://www.telephonepanic.com. I set up a blog that allows me to made voice posts by phone. Every time I have a panic attack, I call & describe the situation. I let the listener hear my out-of-breath state. I describe the discomfort of my heartbeat. I describe my surroundings and my behaviors.

    I'm hoping that the blog will serve not only as a tracking mechanism & archive for myself, but also as a source of help for others. Plenty of people TALK about their panic attacks here on the internet (after the fact) for therapeutic purposes, but it's hard to find accurate accounts of the "panic moment", as I call it. There are probably plenty of people out there who are scared by the irrational thoughts & behaviors they experience in the midst of panic -- so, hopefully, my blog entries will help people to realize that they're not alone.

    And of course, my goal is for all of my panic attacks to end & for my website to fade away into nothingness.

    I'm following you on Twitter -- keep in touch! :)

  • ajmer

    Homoeopathy is simply unparallel in curing anxiety and panic related problems. i have cure hundreds of unfortunates suffering from actute attacks as you have narrated

  • Justin

    I remember that doom feeling so well. It used to come on so rapidly and I felt very powerless to change how I was feeling. I remember I'd feel short of breath and my heart was racing rapidly.

    Glad I don't have those anymore.