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How to Write a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are cruel, cruel things. They can affect anyone, whether they have anxiety or not. But how do you write about one?

Here’s an extract from one of my works in progress:

The blood pounded in her ears. Her heart thudded in her chest. Her hands shook. Her feet tingled. Her vision disfigured, as if she were looking through a fish-eye lens. She had to get away. She couldn’t stay near that damned house any longer. She couldn’t look at it. There was too much of a risk of someone walking out of it and trying to talk her out of her decision. She was stranded. Drive, and she could cause an accident. Not drive, and she was still too close to what had happened.

She turned the key in the ignition, took a long, slow deep breath, then rounded the corner out of sight. There. They wouldn’t know she was there. They wouldn’t follow her. She was out of sight. That was all that mattered.

She clutched the steering wheel, her hands wrapped so tightly around it that her nails dug into her palms. Breathing was hard. Really hard. As if she’d just run the London Marathon.

She cried harder, her chest growing tight as bile rose in her throat.


How to write a panic attack

The most important thing you need to know is that not everyone knows what’s happening the first time they have a panic attack. Especially if they’ve never had one before.

The heart palpitations can often be confused with having a heart attack. In some cases, a panic attack can hurt more than a heart attack. Seriously.

The person may also dismiss it as just just ‘having a moment’ or a ‘crying fit’.

Want to know how to write a panic attack? This is the blog for you.

Key symptoms

  • Overwhelming sense of dread
  • Inability to breathe/hyperventilating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dry mouth and/or throat
  • Chest and wind pipe closing up
  • Chest pain
  • Crying
  • Nausea
  • Feeling like they’re being choked
  • Sweating
  • Hot flushes
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Pins and needles
  • Need to go to the toilet (for either)
  • Stomach churning
  • Pins and needles
  • Shaking
  • Shivering
  • Visions becomes like things are viewed through a fish-eyed lens
  • Feelings detached from the situation (depersonalisation)
  • Intense emotions
  • Lashing out (e.g. throwing things)

After a panic attack

Panic attacks take a lot of energy and are very draining.

J.K.Rowling was on to something when she wrote about eating chocolate after facing dementors: getting food into the system of someone who’s just had a panic attack is a VERY good idea. It can help them to calm down by regulating their blood sugar. Naps also help.

The number one thing NOT to do—unless those around your character having a panic attack are unsympathetic—is to tell said person to ‘calm down’. This makes them worse. Every time.

If the character knows they’re being irrational, it infuriates them. If they don’t know, it could make them panic further.

Panic attack triggers

Anything can trigger a panic attack. It depends on your character.

Some people suffer from panic attacks more than others. It depends on a) what their trigger/s is/are, and b) how often they’re exposed to it/them.

If your character has anxiety, the tiniest thing could set them off. There isn’t always a definitive answer.

If they’re of a nervous disposition, it could be something as minuscule as the way another character says something.

It doesn’t matter how confident or happy your character is. Panic attacks can affect anyone. All it takes is the right trigger.

It doesn’t have to be something they fear, it could be something they hate, or even something they love. Love can very quickly turn to fear/anxiety/panic if the character is in an unknown situation.

You’d be surprised how many situations can trigger fight or flight.

Pin it

Discover how to write a panic attack in this blog post.

If you found this useful…

I’ve also written guides on:

If there’s another mental health guide you’d like me to write about, get in touch!

Over to You

Have you ever written a panic attack before? How did you go about it? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!

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Kristina Adams

Kristina Adams is an author of fiction and nonfiction, writing and productivity blogger, and occasional poet. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Derby and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. When she's not writing she's reading, baking, or finding other ways to destroy the kitchen. She can be found under a pile of books with a vanilla latte.


  • 17th November, 2017 at 21:19

    I feel like there’s one version of a panic attack you missed. The total shut-down. Your mind just stops working. You can’t think at all, about anything. The simplest tasks are beyond your mental ability. You can walk and all that, but actually doing anything is beyond you.

    This is something I have and do experience, as a result of Dyscraphia (though I haven’t for some time). I get over-loaded easier than most, and what that happens, I just shut down. None of the other parts seems to happen, aside from slight dizziness, but that’s more the mind trying to run away and hide, leaving me unable to process things around me.

    Otherwise though, it’s a great insight into it, and very helpful to those who have never felt it.

  • 12th December, 2017 at 22:07

    Well, here’s also a thing! I remember when I have panic attacks, I get up on instinct and try to leave the place I’m in, no matter the trigger. I don’t even think about it, I just shut down and flee. I hope that might add to anybody who’s writing panic attacks! (~.~)

  • 20th December, 2017 at 20:05

    From experience, when I’m having a panic attack, I can’t move and I literally feel like I’m choking. My entire body seizes up and I end up staring at one direct spot until someone helps or distracts me from it.

  • 14th April, 2018 at 03:19

    I thought the over-use of pronouns and definite determiners fogged the overall effect or feeling of the narration. One symptom described to me was a feeling of being underwater, just below the surface with nothing under you and no way to get up for air.

  • 10th September, 2018 at 22:15

    I suffer from panic attacks. It started about a year ago after i turned 13, and have slowy been getting worse. I dont get them often, but each time i have one they are pretty strong. The latest one that happened to me was when i was on vacation in the mountains. I find it hard to describe it to people, but i will do my best.

    It was the middle of the night and i woke up from a nightmare. I never had had a nightmare like that before. It felt so REAL. My chest hurt, it almost felt like when you get a stich in your side after you run for a while.

    I was shaking but i forced myself out of bed. My stomach was churning. I remember crying as i walked down the long hallway to the restroom. I didnt even know why i was so worked up about it. It was just a dream.

    I got to the bathroom and started throwing up. I dont care to go in detail with that.

    I was shaking and i was crying. Everything felt weird. It was so dark, i could not really see. I tripped on my way up the stares but eventually got to my mom. She started yelling at me for waking her up but then realized what happened. It was about 1 – 2 in the morning by now.

    I never went back to sleep. I stayed up all night staring at the wall in the den. My mom told me the next day about how she tried to get me to go back to bed but i started hysterically crying.

    Thanks for listening. I hope i didnt waste your time :’)

  • 4th December, 2018 at 17:59
    Sai kruthi

    I’m sixteen now, I’ve been experiencing panic attacks since i was fourteen, at first i thought being a teenager my hormones were troubling me but later i realized that it was panic attacks.i feel as though I’m trapped in my body like being underwater in the ocean unable to breathe and no place to escape ,i get restless and my heart beat becomes abnormal, i start shivering, i get irritated for even the softest of sounds, it felt like the world is going to collapse on me, i feel like ripping myself apart, pulling my hair, hurting myself in any possible way to get rid of the feeling of insecurity. Sometimes i feel as though there is a lot of unwanted energy in my body,even if every part in my body hurts, i would want to work out and release my energy .But the worst part of this whole experience is not the panic attacks itself but how people perceive it, they think that we are trying to draw attention by faking everything, there are very few people who actually understand what we are going through and helps us out

  • 6th February, 2019 at 05:18
    Levi Andrews

    She couldn’t answer. The boys continued to laugh. Her hands became clammy and her eyes teared up. Her heartbeat sped up, taking flight, only for her chest to weigh her down and fall, into the ocean of despair. She couldn’t breathe, couldnt move, couldnt pull herself to get oxygen her brain and lungs needed. The look on the boys laughing faces slowly faded to one of worry. They could tell they did damage. They could see the distant look in her tired eyes from long nights of the memories that kept her awake. They were joking when they told her they knew about the man. The drunk bastard she called a father. The one who…. No. No air. No help. Her lungs cried and her body shook as she pulled at her silk like hair with nimble fingers. “I’m sorry… Are you okay?” The taller boy asked, pulling his sleeve down to cover a purple-ish bruise. “I didnt mean to hurt you. Michael,” he said, turning to the other boy, who also looked worried,” go get a teacher. She’s having a panic attack.” Michael ran off as the other hugged the girl slowly, as not to scare her, telling her to breathe and everything would be ok. She knew it would not be, however.



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