Not All Panic Attacks Feel Like Heart Attacks: What I Wish Someone Had Told Me A Decade Ago

At the start of sophomore year of college I immediately got swine flu.  I was sick. Really sick. I would sleep twenty hours a day and then wake up so exhausted I couldn’t hold my computer. I felt like every bone in my body was broken and all my joints ached.

The school quarantined me and my (also sick) roommate to try to keep it from spreading to the whole school. We had to have our food and meds brought by friends and wear masks when we saw them. I missed almost two weeks of classes.

One night I was sleeping and I woke up suddenly because I couldn’t breath. My throat felt closed or blocked and my nose was stuffed up from the flu.

Terrified, I made it to the other room and waved wildly at my roommate—pointing to my throat, gasping, and shaking my head, trying to stay upright, holding onto the wall.

She immediately called the security people at the school who called out an ambulance. By the time the EMTs showed up, I was close to passing out, my vision was black around the edges and getting darker.

The EMTs carried me out to the ambulance and gave me oxygen. When we got to the hospital I was breathing again, although it was quite shallow.

I was so afraid it would happen again that I wouldn’t give up the mask. At the same time I was relieved that I could breathe again.

A doctor came over and told me that I was fine (aside from the flu, of course) and that I had always been fine. He told me that the throat closing and not being able to breathe had all been in my head. It wouldn’t happen again, but if it did, it wasn’t a medical problem.

I felt ashamed and stupid for being so freaked out, and for being in a hospital for something that was “all in my head.”

It wasn’t until I started my PhD program, six years later, that it happened again. I had a head cold and stopped being able to breathe—my throat had closed and my nose was blocked—on the subway.

I made it off the subway and to the student clinic by taking really shallow gulps, my heart racing, my hand grasping my phone in case, and then suddenly, at the door, I started breathing again. I didn’t go in, thinking that I was just being foolish again.

It almost happened again a couple of times that fall. I drank water to remind me that I could breathe and kept almost a handle on it. I didn’t realize what was going on. I felt crazy and like my body was turning against me.

This was the same fall that my anxiety and OCD finally got so out of hand that I couldn’t keep a grip on the symptoms and pretend I was okay anymore. At the end of my limits, I went to get help.

At the psychiatrist’s office, I also described the breathing problems.

The psychiatrist casually said, “Yeah, that’s a panic attack.”

I looked at her and argued “No, panic attacks feel like heart attacks and it doesn’t feel anything like that. My chest doesn’t hurt. My left arm doesn’t hurt.”

She responded, “Yeah, panic attacks don’t always present with heart attack symptoms. They can feel like a lot of different things, including suffocating or not being able to breathe. Your throat feels like it is closing, but it is not. That’s a panic attack, very clearly.”

I had never heard or read that, and I had scoured the internet in order to self-treat my anxiety. The only thing I had ever read about panic attacks was that they felt like heart attacks.

I told her so. “I’ve never read anything about panic attacks that feel like this.”

She shrugged, “Well that’s what it is. You should see a therapist.”

When I saw the therapist, she also confirmed it. I had been suffering panic attacks without having any idea.

So I’m sharing this in case other people are having panic attacks without knowing what they are and might identify with my experience.

Panic attacks can come in many different forms. We need to continue to share our experiences so others learn that mental illnesses manifest themselves in a huge variety of ways outside of the common list of symptoms and don’t avoid getting help because they don’t think they have a mental illness.

Has anyone else had panic attacks that don’t feel like heart attacks? How did you learn what they were?

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