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A Period of Panic

Probably the least-useful description of an anxiety event on the Internet is that of the actual experience of panic.  On the Internet, the DSM list of symptoms is faithfully reproduced on many, many sites: pounding heart, sweating, trembling-actually, twelve symptoms, of which the patient must manifest ten symptoms.  More mercifully, an Internet site might just offer a quick recounting of the major symptoms.  While such symptom lists may be very useful to medical practitioners, I’m not sure how much they capture The Experience for the, uh, victim.  While different people experience a period of panic differently, let’s have a period of panic together in Real Time.  Ready?  Here we go:

A short period of light-headedness or feeling faint occurs without warning or any apparent reason in the external world.  You may not recall this until later because the onset of the next symptom is so immediate.  But part of you will remember feeling dizzy-more on that later.  By “any apparent reason in the external world”, I mean that you can’t count this symptom if you are about to jump into a bucket of ice water 200 feet below.  That dizziness is your body telling you that you are about to do something stupid.

A profound, certain feeling that something drastically wrong is going on with your body-you are dying or going crazy.  You are absolutely sure you are doomed.

A total loss of rationality.  This is the bastard at the family picnic of panic symptoms-it is misunderstood and ignored.  If you didn’t have the experience of total loss of rationality with a panic attack, you’d learn quickly to say to yourself, “oh, damn!  I really dislike these symptoms, but they will go away in a little while”.  Let me make this very, very clear: if the person you trust most in the world came up to you at the moment and said, “this is a period of panic-you’ll be all right”-you would neither hear them nor believe them-at the moment, the two of you are in different universes.  If you don’t have this symptom, you may be very anxious, but it isn’t panic.

Unadulterated terror.  Not feeling anxious; not even feeling really, really anxious.  Terror.  It has been said that the only people that have felt this level of terror are those about to be killed violently or those that have experienced panic.  I don’t know how anyone could know that first-hand, but you get the point, even if it’s a bit hyperbolic.

An overwhelming urge to run or get out of the room, car, airplane, or any other place you are in.  My choice of the word “urge” is vastly understated.  You may abruptly get up and quickly leave a room of people, even during a meeting or mid-sentence talking to someone.  People around you sometimes do a self-check of their antiperspirant.

Welcome to a different world.  It’s such an odd sensation; it’s hard to say, “it’s like…”-because it isn’t.  Imagine that you were put on a similar, but different planet ten seconds ago and you looked around, wondering what happened-everything seems sort of the same, but different enough to be unnerving.  You may also reflect on the strangeness of being a human being and about twenty other existential issues at the same time (don’t worry, all these thoughts flooding your brain won’t interfere with your absolute certainty that you’re definitely dying), producing what might be charitably referred to as “confusion” or the current pop-phrase, “cognitive dissonance”.  

Re-entry.  While still very shaken emotionally, you start to realize what has happened-sort of like awakening from a nightmare.  The external world seems a little more like it did before the Panic Monster attacked you.  The outright terror and “I’m gonna die” are replaced with intense fear.

You may have the urge to go and hide while you calm down.  Maybe.  At a minimum, you won’t be telling any funny stories to a group of friends for a few hours.

Assorted unpleasant symptoms.  You may well feel like your hands are shaking and you are having periods of chills like you do when you have the flu.  Also, a set of symptoms like sweating, flushing, periods of light-headedness, heart pounding, stomach discomfort, and so on.  By this time, the symptoms are discomforting, but you are coming Out of the Woods.  These physical symptoms may last about an hour, or they may last for several hours.  You’ll get pretty tired of them.  You may well feel very emotionally drained and residually scared for the rest of the day.  Your urge to play practical jokes will be significantly diminished-especially if the joke involves a loud noise.

You are embarrassed that it happened and probably won’t tell anyone what happened in any detail; frankly it sounds too weird.  If you do tell someone, there is a 95% chance they will say, “oh, I know exactly what you mean!  I walked into the bathroom once and there was a spider-I was SO scared!”  Nope-they don’t get it.

There are few really good articles on the Internet on panic disorder-but one that can be whole-heartedly recommended is:








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