Let's Get Real About Panic Attacks

I had a panic attack last night for the first time in over two years.

I used to have them on a regular basis but in all honesty I thought maybe, just maybe, I was finally beyond that part of healing from my past. On a scale of mild to severe my panic attacks are insanely awful. Like, "should-we-call-the-ambulance?" awful.

The trigger for last night's attack isn't something I'll write about at length here. I will say this, though: the trauma in my past left me with all sorts of challenges to deal with and one of them is PTSD. Certain things (it could be something someone says or does, watching certain scenes in a movie, hearing or seeing something that reminds me of a traumatic event in my past, etc.) can trigger severe anxiety that has the potential to send me into a downward spiral which, when it fully takes over, results in a panic attack. What triggered my attack last night isn't important to talk about at the moment but I would like to take this opportunity to speak candidly about what it feels like to have a panic attack.

I know I am not alone in experiencing extreme anxiety and one of my first thoughts once I'd recovered from the attack was "I need to write about this, this happens to so many survivors."

There's a lot of science surrounding anxiety. We know what happens physically when someone has a panic attack, but at the onset of an attack we're not exactly thinking "Oh man, my norepinephrine and serotonin levels are really whack right now, I'd better get control of my neurotransmitters and my parasympathetic nervous system so I can slow this adrenaline down." 

Nope. It's more like this:

"Oh shit. Damn it. Damn, damn, damn. I'm not ok. I can't breathe. I'm not ok. I can't breathe. I'm really scared..."

Here's the scene:

I've just been triggered.

I'm on my hands and knees in the bathroom. The door is closed and locked because I don't want Wesley to see me like this, I know how much it scares him and besides, it's been so long since I've had an attack I'm feeling really upset with myself that this is about to happen and I need to get through this on my own. I'm rocking back and forth incessantly and trying to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth like I know I'm supposed to. It's not working. My mind is racing, I'm in tears, my heart rate is increasing and my muscles are trembling. In spite of what I know about panic attacks and how to control them, my mind is not in a rational place. I'm thinking:

"Oh shit. Damn it. Damn, damn, damn. I'm not ok. I can't breathe. I'm not ok. I can't breathe. I'm really scared..."

Meanwhile, the still semi-rational part of my brain is screaming at me:

"Stop it, Natalie! Get ahold of yourself. You're freaking out. You can do this. Come on, girl. No, no, no. Breathe! You're ok. You're ok. You're ok. You're safe, you know you're safe and you're so strong, you can DO this."

After several minutes of being right on the verge of an attack and trying to back away from it, I fail.

Imagine swimming in the ocean and beginning to be overtaken by the waves around you. You're treading water (somewhat pathetically) but still managing to keep your head mostly above the water and you think you might even get out of this alive. All of a sudden, a massive wave comes out of nowhere and in an instant, before you've even had the chance to take one last gulp of air, the wave swallows you and you're desperately fighting for your life.

That seems dramatic, I know, but it's a lot what this part of a panic attack feels like - completely losing control. Hyperventilation is really frightening even when you know you're not going to die from it. During my worst panic attacks, I hyperventilate until I nearly pass out and last night was no exception.

My back is up against the wall, my chest is tight and heaving and both hands are clawing at the bathroom counter as I struggle to find my breath. It's not happening. Stretching my neck upward, I gasp for air again and again and the room starts to spin and sparkle. "No, Natalie," I tell myself "Stay conscious. For the baby." Finally, after what feels like an hour but realistically is about 90 seconds, I slowly begin to find my breath and lower myself to the floor. My whole body is shaking and my heart rate is through the roof, but my mind starts to slow down.

At this point I know I need to employ self-soothing mechanisms so I don't start hyperventilating again. I force myself to loosen my tightly balled, pulsing fists, I get into child's pose and lay my head on the cold floor (thanks, yoga) and I start to follow my breath. Once the worst of the attack is over, it usually takes a while to recover. With the exception of methodically stroking the bathroom rug with my hand to keep myself calm, I lay still on the floor for several minutes.

If the metaphor of being in the ocean is one that resonates with you, now imagine the wave that you thought was going to kill you finally spits you out onto the sand. You're mangled and exhausted but alive. Your mind is numb; the crashing of the waves is still the only sound you can hear and you're not quite ready to process what you've just experienced. After lying in the sand for a while the rest of the world slowly begins to come into focus again.

Last night, and rather unexpectedly for me, this is when the guilt started to set in.

"Goddammit, Natalie. You were doing so well. You're an abuse advocate, for Pete's sake, you're supposed to be past this stuff."

Angry with myself for not being in more control, I break down and start quietly sobbing into a nearby hand towel. How could I let this happen? Why didn't I control it?!

Then I remember Wesley, my loving husband, who's probably been sitting outside the bathroom trying to resist his urge to break the door down and save his pregnant wife from this terrifying ordeal. He's seen this before, many times, but I know it doesn't get any easier, especially when we both probably thought I was past this phase of PTSD. I stop crying, take several deep breaths and slowly stand up.  I avoid looking in the mirror while I brush my teeth and splash water on my face. I'm not ready to face that person yet. I'm so disappointed in her.

Emerging from the bathroom, I look down the hallway and see Wesley sitting on the couch. "Come to bed, baby," I tell him. We get into bed. After a moment or two of discussion and some more tears, I drift off to sleep knowing I'll have plenty to deal with in the morning.

So this is me, dealing with it.

You're probably thinking, "Geez, she didn't waste any time sharing this with the world, did she?" 

That's alright, I really don't blame you. But writing is a big part of how I process things and work toward healing, and while it's important for me to understand my own boundaries and know when it's time to be quiet and when it's time to share, being vulnerable and open about my experiences is deeply cathartic and connective for me. I know that many people reading this will understand what it's like to have a panic attack. They'll relate with it, they'll feel less alone knowing that someone else has felt the same way, and that connection is a powerful tool for coping and healing.

I also know that people who have never experienced sexual abuse, PTSD, or harrowing panic attacks will read this and have a better understanding of what victims of abuse go through, and that's also really important as we work to collectively support one another.

Am I still upset with myself about last night? Yes. But I recognize that as my ego. The truth is that I have felt so proud of myself for how far I've come. Working as an advocate has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, it's an honor and an accomplishment all at once. Knowing that I've healed to the point that I can help support and stand up for other victims and survivors of abuse is such a gift, and last night was a cruel reminder that I still have work to do in myself. It felt like taking 5 steps backward. It felt like eating humble pie.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because we all eat humble pie sometimes. We're all infallible and we all hurt. We all know what it feels like to be running free with the wind in your hair and to suddenly face plant in the dirt. It sucks.

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago and it seems fitting to end this post with some of the same words.

What it all boils down to is this: we're all a mess of deep suffering and ecstatic joy, of disease and health, of blubbering tears and wild laughter. Whether obviously or subtly, we're tethered together and we each are given the choice, again and again, to either walk isolated and alone or to reach out and grasp onto one another.

Here is my hand, we both have suffered. Take mine and I will take yours.


  1. Mine are different. Going back in time, about two months before I had my first 'recent' panic attack, I'd had a Stress Test. The doctor doing the testing had to raise the treadmill to nearly a 45 degree angle, and increase the speed to maximum before he could get my heart rate high enough.

    Our family doctor told me that I need not worry about my heart giving out, that they'd probably have to shoot me!

    Anyway, something that majorly stressed me out happened. I felt like I was having a heart attack. It was awful. But I knew it pretty well couldn't be a heart attack because of what the doctor had said. Since this happened in the evening after my doctor had closed, and I didn't want to visit Emerg and have them run useless tests, I talked to my wife. She instantly recognized the symptoms, since she has had panic attacks most of her adult life. I made an appointment the next day, and our family doctor ran some tests, and concluded that yes, I was having panic attacks.

    I've never felt guilty about having them, but the circumstances are different.

    But they can be intensely debilitating. If I have one, lying down and napping is the only thing I've found that helps. I don't get them as often now, and they don't tend to be as intense, but it is nearly twenty years since they started. Or rather I say since they started back up. Different reason this time.

    Based on talking to other people, I gather that they hit everyone a bit differently. Other than the feeling like you are having a heart attack and are about to die that is!


    1. Thank you so much for sharing this here! I'm sorry that you experience panic attacks and yes I think you're right, I think each person experiences them a little differently. The bottom line is, they're scary as heck if you don't know what they are, right? I'm also glad that you have figured out something that helps you.

      Stay strong, brother, and thanks again for commenting!


    2. They are terrifying if you don't know what they are. And not much better when you do!

      Mind you, I'm glad I do know what they are, and that I'm not having a heart attack. But they feeling of helplessness is not enjoyable, and anyone who says it is needs help.

  2. I'm so sorry you have to still go through this. I know how hard it is. I have complex PTSD and I had fifteen years between attacks. When my Mom (my numero uno abuser) passed away I was triggered by that and being in a tiny hospice room with family members. I had a full on hot mess of an attack right there. I managed to get away down the hall and have it hugging the wall. I beat myself up, felt so ashamed and out of control. Natalie we aren't, it's just so much crap over so many years it's bound to happen. I think it's my brain's way of saying it's never going to be totally ok and well that's ok. We do what we do and we keep going. Part of that process of healing or whatever is talking, writing whatever you have to do to get beyond it and maybe help someone. I used to blog, that helped so much. Now I take photographs and pray. A lot. Anyway thank you so much for sharing this difficult, brave post of yours here. It really helped me this evening and I'm thankful for people like you, it helps me keep going. Sending prayers, positive thoughts and a hug if I could to you.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Teresa, and for being trusting enough to share a piece of your story here. I'm honored that you did, but I'm so sorry that you've suffered the pain of abuse and the PTSD that so often follows. Ugh. And that panic attack in the hospice room sounds terrifying. The feeling of being totally out control is so debilitating. It's so good that you have things that help you. I would love to see some of your photography if any of it is available for public consumption.

      Sending you love and light today, and thank you again for sharing here.

  3. Natalie said: "You're probably thinking, 'Geez, she didn't waste any time sharing this with the world, did she?'"

    I'm not thinking that, Natalie.
    I didn't think it once while I was reading your words.
    My mind went back and forth between trying to understand panic attacks to this degree and something else.

    I kept internally cussing pedo Jamin and fraudulent Doug.
    I'm really angry with them right now, again.
    I'm angry with how self-centered and self-absorbed they are.
    I'm angry with how easy it was for them to hurt someone so much and so deeply with hardly a second thought.
    I'm angry with how they view and use little girls then cast them aside like trash.

    People are not things to be used.
    Broken people who won't comply with further abuse are not evil or in rebellion. They are not trash to be kicked to the curb. They need healing.

    No, I'm not judging you, Natalie.
    I'm just angry and sad all over again.
    And I'm sorry that this is still a part of your life.
    You, Wesley, and your babies deserve better.

    1. Mara, thank you so much. It was really kind of you to take the time to write this out here, and it's ok to be angry. I get angry about it, too. I used to tell myself that if I conquered a panic attack before it got terrible, it would take away some of the power that Jamin still holds over me but then I stopped thinking that. He doesn't hold power over me anymore. He hurt me, yes, and that pain is something I'll battle with for the rest of my life in some capacity, but he has no power over me anymore. I face the beast of what he did to me every single day and I conquer it again and again. The panic attacks are a physical remnant of the trauma I suffered, they're not Jamin.

      Thank you for being angry for me and for other victims. It's alright to be angry about injustice and abuse.

  4. You are not alone. I haven't had a panic attack in about 6 months. And the last one scared me. Because I had been doing so well and I didn't understand how I found myself looking in the mirror, panicking, begging Abba once again to end my life so I could be done with the pain. This is the reality, but it doesn't define. I'm grateful for your honesty, your transparency...because it reminds me I'm not alone...that these moments are just blips in my journey and I don't have to be afraid that this is my life. You are an amazing person. Hugs to you!

    1. Hi Taunya, thank you so much for your comment. I'm so sorry that you suffer from panic attacks as well. They're all too common but that doesn't make them any less frightening! And thank you so much for your kind words. You are NOT alone, and I love that you said those moments are just blips in your journey - that is so true. Sending love and light your way. I appreciate you.

  5. I had a panic attack a few months ago after a very counterproductive phone consultation with a medical professional, whose services I declined to pursue because what kind of asshole doctor denigrates a potential client's symptoms and gives them a panic attack over the phone? My skin felt like it was on fire for almost three days afterward because the adrenaline dump was fucking huge, probably twice the norm if I had to guess. I feel you.

    Running helps me. Chocolate milk, antacids and bananas seems to be somewhat therapeutic in counteracting the adrenaline overdose. Also I keep a 1"x2' dowel rod next to the bed and when things get really bad I beat the crap out of my mattress with it. Whatever it takes. It's OK to be angry. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this, Natalie! I recently had a panic attack that left me reeling. It had been 10 years since I had experienced on and I thought I had this part of my life conquered. Shame is what I began to feel at the onset of the attack. How could this be happening to me? I thought this part of my life was in the past. But I realized that heaping shame on myself is a pointless exercise. The reality is: We all fall down and get up again. This is the pattern of life, its ebbs and flows. I take comfort in reading your story, and the stories of others who have suffered just like me. In sharing, we know we're not alone and we aren't crazy. That's a good thing. I also take comfort in knowing that my Creator understands and does not condemn me, but rather loves me with an undying love.

    Keep writing, Natalie. You are such an encouragement.

  7. Ugh. Got hit with a panic attack last night. It's still hanging in 24 hours later, not as bad, but I still feel the shakes.

    I so did not want this.


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