The Anatomy of a Panic Attack

Disclaimer: this is written from personal experience. I am not a licensed physician.

Imagine the best day you’ve ever had. Did you wake up to a warm cup of coffee and a kiss from your significant other? Did your little ones jump into your bed with a rain of kisses? Was the weather perfect, your outfit banging, and anything that could have gone right did even better than that?

It’s exhilarating, isn’t it?

Then you are home, winding down from the day, doing the things that make you you. Perhaps that’s reading a book, binging Netflix, or baking pies. There’s not a care in the world, until you start feeling funny.

Nausea? Heartburn? Maybe some medicine will help. You try to focus on the task at hand, but you’re a little dizzy. Is heartburn supposed to hurt this badly? Why am I shaking? Why am I so hot?

When these events started happening to me, I was scared to death- almost literally. The very first time I experienced a panic attack, my baby was two months old, and I had woken up around two in the morning. I thought I was just sick from dinner, or maybe having some bowel issues (sorry for the TMI) so I go the bathroom and I sit there.

That’s when I notice I’m hurting in a lot of different places. My back and shoulders were so tense I was almost stiff; it hurt to move. I was dizzy, and my stomach was tight and bloated. I was nauseas and had abdominal pain higher up, almost in the sternum area; the pain was tight and burning. I felt similar pain in the middle of my chest- an unbearable tightness. This made it hard for me to breathe, as if my lungs were only able to fill at have capacity. I noticed my heart was thumping so hard I could almost hear it. I was gasping for air, and the harder it was to breathe, the more afraid I became.

I was completely convinced I was having a heart attack. I hobbled my way back to the bedroom and in a panic I practically beat my boyfriend awake. At first he thinks I’m being dramatic about a little stomachache, and I’m struggling to get the words out and tell him that something is seriously wrong. I’m rolling around the bed, trying to find some position that made the pain any better. I beg him to call my mother, and he does, and after speaking to her she explains that I’m probably having a panic attack and I should probably go to the hospital.

My sister was staying with us at the time, so my boyfriend wakes her up and they start helping to pack up the baby so we can go to the hospital. I’m sitting in the reclining chair in the front living room when it hits me.

I projectile vomit straight onto the floor.

My head is spinning, I’m in physical pain, and now I’m freaking out even more because I’ve made a huge mess on my floor. We half ass clean it with a towel because I was ready to get out of there and try to stop this pain. I have no idea how long I had been having this attack at this point and as my boyfriend finishes packing up the baby and getting her in her car seat, I sit outside on the porch hoping the fresh air will calm me.

I raise my arms up like you would after a long run, trying to help regulate my breathing. I remember what a therapist once told me- I use the mailbox as focal point, I list the things I can feel. I wish that method worked instantly because after a few minutes I just felt even more distressed because the pain was excruciating, I was suffocating, and a part of me just wanted to die so I wouldn’t have to feel it anymore.

We load up in the car and make our way across town to the hospital. I’m holding the oh-shit handle with both hands, slowly breathing like a woman in labor. My chest is hurting so bad and my brain is very foggy, so my sister talks to the nurses for me.  By the time I was seen, I had started coming down from my panic attack. It was about 3:30AM, and after explaining to the doctor what had happened to me, I was given a small prescription to help when an attack struck again.

Before this all happened, I thought I had experienced a panic attack. Recently I’ve learned that there is a difference between wahat I may have experienced before and what I am experiencing now. Anxiety attacks often happen when they are triggered by something specific, but they can usually last only a few minutes or until the trigger goes away. Panic attacks, on the other hand, seem to have no obvious trigger, and can last much longer.

Since May, I have probably had about six panic attacks. All of them except one have happened at night. Out of all the ones that happened at night, only one occurred while I was sleeping (my first one).

All of them, however, happened while I was doing absolutely nothing. I was asleep, or talking to a friend, or reading something on the Internet when I start to feel a pain in my sternum. The first few times it happened I thought it was heartburn, so I would take a Tum and try to get back to what I’m doing. After about twenty minutes the pain gets more intense and that’s usually when I figure out that it’s something else. My next step is to take a lorazepam and start working on calming myself.

Lately I’ve found that it’s best to take a short walk outside. Since this usually happens at night I just walk around my backyard with my dogs. I tend to get really hot when this happens, so I carry around a cold bottle of water. In addition to drinking it I will also touch it to my face and arms, and try to focus on the cold sensations.

I then make an attempt at making myself happy and positive, so as to force my body out of the panic. I smile, talk out loud about the things I love and what makes me happy. I’ll even have a conversation with my dogs. Sometimes my boyfriend will come out to check on me, and every once in a while I enjoy talking to him as a distraction. Sometimes I feel like I calm down faster on my own.

I don’t know how much longer this keep occurring, and I keep hoping the next one is the last one. I’m still learning how I came to be this way, and am making all the efforts I can to make it stop. I’m afraid that something more severe may happen to me, and as a mother I can’t imagine leaving my child. It’s a journey, and while I’m ready to race to the end of it, I think taking it slow is the most effective method for me.

Anything special that helps you relax? Swap ideas below in the comments. Let’s work together to end this 😊.


  1. Wow, what a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it. The last time I had a panic attack was almost 9 months ago (in winter), and the best thing I could do (since I was pregnant and couldn’t take lorazepam) was to sit outside in the cold, on the porch, and cool off. It really helped to focus on a different sensation than to focus on my thoughts and the adrenaline.
    - Christine


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