Anxiety Disorders

What Panic Feels Like

Steve Pavilanis

During my years of struggle with anxiety, I experienced countless panic attacks. People often ask me what a panic attack feels like, so I thought I'd share with you one of my most haunting memories. This was the first time I had a panic attack while riding a crowded train in Chicago.

panic buttonRunning late for work one morning, I frantically raced up two flights of stairs to catch a departing train to downtown. Still catching my breath, my heart continued to beat quickly. The train was very crowded and I was shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers. As I stood amongst the crowd I suddenly noticed that my heart hadn’t slowed down. Out of nowhere, I could feel dread and panic beginning to fill my mind. “What if I can’t slow my heart beat down? Oh, God! Not again!” My symptoms grew worse. My breathing became rapid and shallow, my heart pounded and my legs turned to jelly. I was in complete panic.

I tried to take my mind off the fact that I was having a breakdown in front of an entire trainload of people. Seconds were hours. I prayed under my breath. I opened my workbag, searching for a distraction. With my heart pounding through my chest, the train finally pulled up to the next stop. I assumed everyone in the train car was aware that I was extremely anxious. I wanted to get out, but then again, if I got out after one stop, wouldn’t that arouse more suspicion? Wouldn’t it be obvious that I was terrified and having a panic attack and was a total weirdo who didn’t belong there?

As the doors slid open, even more people crammed in. I could barely move an arm, we were so tightly packed together. The loudspeaker rang once again, triggering a reaction. I bolted out the door and onto the platform, escaping the train. The doors closed and the train sped away. In a few minutes, I calmed down, but my legs were weak and my entire body was trembling. I felt worthless and rejected. What a coward I had been! I was so upset that I called in sick to work that day.

The most devastating aspect of a panic attack is the psychological damage it can inflict. After this incident, my self-confidence dropped to an all-time low, and it would be nearly one year until I could muster up the courage to ride the train again. However, this story does have a happy ending. Using simple techniques, I systematically faced and overcame my worst fears, including riding crowded public transportation and public speaking.


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