So what exactly does an anxiety attack feel like?
This article is going to take you through the seven phases of an anxiety attack. As someone who has experienced a high level of anxiety for as long as I can remember, I consider myself an expert when it comes to attacks. However, these phases are simply how my anxiety attacks run their course, but I cannot say the same for every individual suffering from anxiety.
Trigger Warning: Considering writing this article almost gave me an anxiety attack, I wouldn't be surprised if it triggers other people as well. Be careful, please!
1. The world suddenly feels darker.
I have always described my anxiety attacks beginning in this way. By darker, I don't mean physically (like when the sun goes behind a cloud). This phenomenon is more difficult to explain. It's like one second, you're in a world you recognize and then you blink and everything you once knew is gone. A sort of heaviness falls over you and your body prepares for all hell to break loose.
2. Planning an exit strategy.
One characteristic of an anxiety attack is an urgency to escape. As soon as I sense one coming on, my mind goes directly to planning an exit strategy. At work? Find the bathroom. At home? Find my bed. Somewhere else? Go outside, get somewhere alone, get away from whatever is causing you anxiety and to a safe, quiet place. This is, as I said, an urgent feeling. This is a need to escape. Sometimes I run, but most of the time I just speed walk the f*ck out of there in a desperate search for some level of comfort.
Unfortunately, if it's a bad enough anxiety attack, this phase is paired with the next stage:
3. A feeling of discomfort no matter where you are.
The anxiety attack does not end when you run. For people without anxiety, the "flight" reaction would probably only happen when faced with a serious threat. Say, a man holding a knife in your shower or happening upon a tiger in the jungle. In this case, once you're clear from said danger, you feel calm again. A person who suffers from anxiety is plagued with overactive fight-or-flight preceptors. Your body is reacting to a perceived danger, which takes place only in your mind. Since your mind follows you to your safe space, so does the anxiety. In this phase, you may find yourself shifting positions or running from room to room in search of comfort you cannot find. You also may experience an overwhelming feeling of being trapped. In this stage, you are, in many ways, literally trapped inside your own head.
4. Inability to breathe; dizziness; nausea.
Now you notice more physical symptoms setting in. Remember: the world, as you know it, has disappeared. You feel like your life is spinning out of control. You're often at a loss for words and you may feel like you're going to throw up. You could start to hyperventilate (cue the paper bag breathing) and might even end up fainting. This is also when you start sweating, shaking, pacing, etc.
5. Irrational thoughts.
The worst part. What if this never stops? What if I'm broken now? What if I die from this panic attack? What if someone sees me? What if my boss notices I've been gone for more than a few minutes? How many minutes has it been? What if I pass out in here and no one knows? What if I'm actually having a seizure right now and no one knows? Actually I think these are signs of a stroke. You can get paralyzed from a stroke, right? No, no, this is an anxiety attack, remember? Right. Okay, but what if it never stops? It's never going to stop. I'm going to have to go to the hospital so they can sedate me. I think I'm dying.
Imagine having all of those thoughts in the span of maybe five seconds and then playing them on a loop, without your (perceived) control, until you literally feel like pounding on your head in an effort to make your thoughts go away.
6. The turn (also known as stopping the cycle).
Cue every single coping mechanism your therapists, parents, doctors, friends, etc. have ever taught you. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four and hold for four again. Repeat. Distract yourself. Think about anything except anxiety. Repeat what you had for meals yesterday. Recite the preamble to the constitution, an eight minute spoken word poem, all 50 states in alphabetic order, the beginning to Law and Order: SVU (in the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous), the copyright warning at the beginning of movies (the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal), your address, phone number, full name, literally anything. Get your mind somewhere else, anywhere else but where it currently is, spinning out of control and further into your attack.
7. The end.
The turn could take minutes, but it could just as easily take hours. From time to time, you'll fall back into the attack, lose a bit of control and have to start again. Then, you finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and it's always clear as day once it's there. A few more breaths and you wipe the remaining tears from your eyes. Your shaking hands begin to calm and blood pumps through your veins and warms you once more. You're no longer gasping for air. You open your eyes and the world is back as it always was. You may be extremely tired. You'll probably feel a rush of emotions: frustration, sadness, anger, hopelessness, embarrassment, but most importantly and most fiercely, relief. It's over.