Ever Wondered What a Panic Attack Feels Like?
If you’ve never actually experienced a full-fledged panic attack — a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 — then you honestly can’t imagine what one is actually like.
I’ve always had bouts of occasional anxiety, but it’s been more than a dozen years since I had the panic attack to end all panic attacks.
I thought I was literally going to die, and of all places, my death was going to occur inside a Kmart store.
What preceded my major panic attack episode was a mysterious condition that required setting up an appointment with a neurologist. It was when I lived in Richmond and it was about 2005 or so, I think. I don’t have an exact date, although I’d think I would have remembered.
I had been experiencing a light tingling in the ring finger and pinkie finger of my left hand. It was the mild kind that happens when you sleep wrong, but it was only in those two finges and that side of my hand going up to the wrist. There was no arm pain, just a dull tingling in that portion of the hand.
I saw a doctor — the hypochondriac in me was afraid it might be the start of some kind of heart attack. He suggested it might have something to do with typing too much or using the computer too much and offered to set up an appointment for me with a colleague who he described as a master of creating braces that could relieve stress on the hands to solve this very thing.
But something told me that wasn’t quite it.
Unfortunately, I then decided to go to a chiropractor, one who I vaguely knew of but that was said to have a good reputation. He immediately diagnosed the problem as a pinched nerve, which is what I rather expected. But he said the pinched nerve was in my neck, not my wrist, which I did not expect.
For six weeks or so, I had multiple appointments that included adjustments (which themselves included unGodly sounding cracking of my spine and various joints) followed by exercises to strengthen my neck.
Towards the end of this series of visits, he made the casual remark that if I didn’t see improvement soon, he’d want to schedule an appointment for me with a neurologist.
That casual remark, which probably wouldn’t have bothered most others, was the flip of the switch to turn my anxiety onto a low boil. Neurologists, my mind reminded me, deal with serious stuff: ALS, multiple sclerosis, and a host of other horrifying diagnoses danced through my head.
To make a bad situation worse, when it came time to book the appointment, the earliest I could get an appointment was a month away.
That meant four weeks of worrying about what this terrible situation could be.
After the first week of waiting and wondering about what terrible malady I’d be diagnosed with, the panic attack hit.
I’d never experienced anything like it.
Oh, sure…I’d had little mild moments of panic, little tiny anxiety attacks that get you on edge and leave you out of sorts for an hour or so.
But it was nothing like this.
I was driving home from work one afternoon and I started feeling strange. It was as if I was only “half-there.” The closest thing I could describe is that “buzz” you get when you’ve just started to slip into the feeling of having had too many drinks.
I rarely drink alcohol other than an occasional glass or wine or a Rum and Coke…so that buzz feeling is not something I experience often; I’m enough of a control freak that I hate the feeling the few times I have experienced it.
But this buzz felt wrong. Completely wrong.
I hadn’t been drinking at all, obviously, since I was leaving work. But the feeling that I was sort of floating and wasn’t there was getting stronger. The closest place to pull off just happened to be a Kmart store. So I made my turn and got into the parking lot as quickly as I could.
I turned off the car and sat there for a minute. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I felt dizzy. I felt like my hands were shaking but I was too afraid to look to see if they were.
For some rason, it occurred to me that I should walk inside the store and down to the pharmacy to check my blood pressure.
So somehow I managed to get out of the car and make my way to the front door. The automatic doors creaked open and I took a few steps inside. I was a few more steps from the line of available shopping carts when two thoughts hit me.
First, I wondered why no one seemed to notice I was in such distress. If I looked as bad as I felt, and I was convinced I must have, surely someone should have noticed and offered to call 911 or at least help me to a seat. People walked by nodding as if nothing was wrong.
I couldn’t understand that.
The second thought was the big one: I was going to die in a Kmart.
Looking back on it now, I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Arthur with Dudley Moore. Arthur’s butler and caretaker, Hobson, played by Sir John Gielgud, is dying in the hospital. Arthur brings him a variety of toys and gifts, including a cowboy hat. With it on his head, Gieldud says, “If I begin to die, please take this off my head. This is not the way I wish to be remembered.”
But at the time, I couldn’t see any humor. The room was spinning. My heart felt like it was beating even harder than it had been in the parking lot. I was feeling dizzy. I felt like I was sweating by the gallon, although I wasn’t really sweating at all. I walked a couple of steps to the next available shopping cart and took hold of it, relying on it to keep me steady as I made my way down the aisle to the pharmacy. Somehow, and to this day, I’m not sure how I made it, but I got to the pharmacy and I sat down at the blood pressure testing machine. Mine was high. It’s normally near 120/74 or so. The top number was about 156 and the lower number was closer to 90, as I recall.
It was high enough to make me worry that it was too high. I don’t even remember what my pulse was, but it was a lot higher than normal, too.
For some reason, rather than asking the pharmacist for some kind of help, I just sat there. I tried taking a few deep breaths. I counted down, for some reason, from 20 to zero. Slowly. I can’t tell you why I picked 20, but that’s what I picked.
I took my blood pressure again a few minutes later. It was down a bit. Still high, but down. So I stopped, took more deep breaths and counted down again.
My blood pressure was lower again. The room wasn’t spinning as much. I didn’t feel like I was in a cold sweat. My heart didn’t feel like it was going to beat itself out of my chest.
I counted. I took deep breaths. I told myself I was getting better.
After about the fourth or fifth reading, my blood pressure was fairly close to what it normally was. It was still elevated, but it was close enough that I felt relieved.
I’d heard of panic attacks and I knew I’d had panic episodes before, but on that scale of 1 to 10, they were mostly twos and threes compared to this single episode.
I talked to my doctor about the episode and he agreed that it was just a bad panic attack. As I recalled, he prescribed something but I don’t remember what it was; I wasn’t on it for very long. Just realizing that I wasn’t dying was enough to calm my nerves to a degree.
By the time I met with the neurologist, who, fortunately, understood what it’s like to be a hypochondriac and tested both arms so he could show me the problem was isolated to one arm, not both, he was able to spot exactly where the ulnar nerve (the nerve that feeds the ring and pinkie fingers and the side of the hand opposite the thumb) was pinched: right around the funny bone.
I had elbow surgery shortly after that and woke up from the surgery with the tingling immediately gone.
I haven’t had that level of panic attack since. I truly hope that it’s the only major panic episode I ever experience.
The good thing I’ll say about a bad panic attack is once you see what your mind is actually capable of, you begin to immediately recognize a smaller one coming on and you can quickly learn how to talk yourself out of it that much faster.
That in itself is a huge blessing.
If you’ve never experienced one, I hope you never do. If you have and you’re frightened of the next one, just remind yourself that you can talk yourself down: you just have to remind yourself to do it.