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“What an Anxiety Attack Really Feels Like”

Never doubt someone who suffers from symptoms they cannot show you.


This blog comes from a parent of a child with “invisible disabilities.” It comes from a teacher whose students miss class for mental illnesses that no one can verify. It comes from a woman who lived 35 years thinking that the feeling of her heart racing, being short of breath, and having sleepless nights were normal because she didn’t know otherwise.

Anxiety is not fiction.

Many who have never dealt with this ailment dismiss it as an excuse by those who suffer from it to get out of mundane tasks or work requirements. Much like ADHD or mood disorders, anxiety is not something that can necessarily be seen or proven when you are the sufferer struggling to explain yourself to someone who doubts that your night sweats and inability to turn your brain off in the wee hours of the morning are not something you are making up to take a vacation day. Our life is not a vacation.

Anxiety is real. Panic is not made up. Owning, getting help to overcome, and learning to cope with your anxious feelings is critical to finally living your life and not simply existing.

This is what an anxiety attack feels like.

It is 3:00 in the morning. I wake up from a dead sleep, sit straight up, and immediately know something is wrong. I am sweating, nauseous, and feel as if someone has dumped a bucket of ice water onto my chest. I feel it spill down my abdomen and through my arms and legs. My chest feels as though a giant’s hand is squeezing it with the intention of taking my life.

I feel like I am dying.

“Call the emergency squad!” I yell to my husband, without a thought that I might wake our sleeping children. I refuse to go to the doctor for fairly major complaints, so he knows I am serious.

In the minutes that pass before the EMT arrives, I move to the couch, clutch my chest because the pain is more intense than labor contractions, and secretly send a voice message to my husband’s phone, hysterically telling him how grateful I am for him and expressing my love for my children.

I feel like I am dying.

When the medical personnel take my vitals, my heart rate has soared above 136 and my breathing is rapid and short. The sweating has slowed, but I am nauseous and dry heaving. It takes about 30 minutes for the aides to update my stats and explain that they think I may be having a minor heart attack or have blood clots going to my heart. They say I need to get to a hospital.

Hours and lots of tests later, the doctors say I have gallstones and a panic attack.

A panic attack? I thought panic attacks were reserved for women who were overly emotional and struggled with a mood disorder. The picture I had of these women from after-school movies and health class worksheets hadn’t prepared me for the idea that a relatively happy wife, mother, teacher, writer, and friend could be suffering from a panic attack. This had to be wrong.

I was 34 before I knew anxiety was real. I had lived my life with these feelings, never knowing that everyone else wasn’t experiencing the same thing. I was 35 when I reached out to a friend, who is a nurse practitioner, to ask about my symptoms. That is when I began taking medication. I am on the lowest dose of anxiety medication and I have been taking it for six months. It has changed my life.

Just like nothing could have prepared me for marriage or parenting, nothing could have helped me prep my body or mind for the feelings that flooded my body when it was in full panic.

When I was in the middle of my panic attack, there was no person, no statistic, no test that could have convinced me that I wasn’t living my last moments on earth. I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare where my husband and kids were in my line of sight but out of reach.

All at once, I felt that I would never see my kids grow up, graduate, get married, and give us grandchildren. I would never retire and travel the world with my adventurous husband. I would never see my dreams realized of being a full-time paid writer.

All in a moment that may have lasted hours or seconds, everything came to a halt. The word panic doesn’t seem to reach the sensations I felt during those minutes and hours. My body ached, my insides contracted and felt ice cold, my heart hurt more than any pain I’ve felt. What was worse was the paralyzing, gripping fear—sheer and utter incapacitating fear— that I was leaving so many things undone.

Never doubt someone who suffers from symptoms they cannot show you. Some people are dishonest, but those with mental and emotional struggles wouldn’t wish what they go through on anyone. They surely wouldn’t write it as fiction.

Author: Brynn Burger

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