This Is What a Panic Attack Really Feels Like

Plus, what you should know about the condition.

When a young U.K. woman shared two photos of herself earlier this month on Facebook, she wrote that she wanted to help de-stigmatize anxiety and mental health issues. The first photo displayed the “normal” side of her that she shows to the world every day—“dressed up, make up done, filters galore.” The second photo showed what she looked like after suffering a panic attack—also, she wrote, the “normal” side of her.

Just 10 days later, the post has garnered more than 28,000 shares. (You can see her post in its entirety here. Warning: contains some explicit language). Amber Smith has indeed helped raise awareness about an important mental health issue: The photos have gone viral and the words “panic attack” have been trending on Facebook all week. But what exactly is a panic attack? While people throw the words around casually (“OMG, I’m totally having a panic attack!”), it’s actually a medical condition. “A panic attack is a rapidly escalating set of anxiety symptoms that usually includes both physical symptoms of anxiety and psychological or cognitive symptoms of anxiety,” says David L. Kupfer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va.

The physical symptoms can include heart palpitations, sweating, shaking or trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, or dizziness. And the predominant psychological symptom is a fear of losing control, whether it’s that you’ll embarrass yourself in a meeting or that your pounding heart means you’re going to have a heart attack and die. Anyone can have a panic attack, but some people are more predisposed than others, including those with a family history or a preexisting anxiety disorder. The best treatment plans typically include a combination of medication and talk therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Kupfer says one way people who have never had a panic attack can try to understand them is to think about a spiral of anxiety: imagine driving in an unfamiliar area and taking a wrong turn. You’re afraid of getting lost, your palms start sweating, and your heart beats more rapidly. But then you worry that your rapid heartbeat means you’re having a heart attack. And then you worry about what having a heart attack while driving would mean. Suddenly you’re in the throes of a panic attack, certain that you’re going to die. “The person just cannot stop [the negative thoughts] on their own,” he says.

We asked our Facebook fans who’ve experienced panic attacks to tell us what it can feel like, in their own words. Here are five of their answers:

“My symptoms may include hyperventilating, erratic breath, pain/trouble breathing, shaking/trembling, a strong feeling of hopelessness, and all I want to do is curl up in a ball and disappear. Sometimes talking to or touching me makes it worse. Mine are brought on by my anxiety/worrying, over-thinking everything, lack of sleep; it causes a sort of system shutdown. The panic is literally a system overload. If you want an idea of what it can feel like, imagine being in a hall of mirrors surrounded by a nauseating combination of every color, while being buffeted by thousands of voices/noises and threatening figures, and you have nowhere safe you can go.”

“I began to feel shaky inside my chest, and light-headed. I couldn't concentrate and felt like I was completely disconnected from my thoughts and reactions.”

“Total doom and gloom. Feels like you're waiting for something really bad to happen. Like an explosion of everything you fear in this world is impending. It sucks… and your heart beats harder than it’s ever beat before. And you want to scream, cry and crawl out of your skin.”

“I have GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) and it's maddening. My panic attacks strike at any moment and can last for a few minutes to an entire day. Sometimes, more often than not in fact, there isn't even a trigger or stressor. It's like my brain goes haywire and perceives a threat when I'm just sitting down and relaxing. They make me feel like I want to run away from myself but of course that isn't an option. When they get really severe I start to worry that something is very wrong and that I'm actually dying, which is a common occurrence with panic attacks in general. I feel like I have no control over my body whatsoever which leads to deep seeded frustrations and anger. The attacks are completely and utterly overwhelming and something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.”

“It feels as if your chest is tightening so much you cannot breathe… and it is almost impossible to catch your breath. Shaking of the body that won't stop... a general feeling of, ‘I'm going to die.’”