The Writer's Cookbook

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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.

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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1 Comment

  1. 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.

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