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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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ABOUT
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.

15 Comments

  • 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.

    REPLY
  • 12th December, 2017 at 22:07
    Kensey

    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! (~.~)

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 10th September, 2018 at 22:15
    Addison

    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 :’)

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  • 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

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  • 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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  • 1st May, 2019 at 20:35
    Kitty

    This was a big help! I’ve only had the unpleasant experience once myself and I don’t remember much, just the pure panic and disorientation of the moment. So this helped me a lot in my story currently for a scene I need to write. In my fantasy story, the protagonist is a warrior, and has gone threw many different things and experiences, some of witch had been traumatic to her. Now, after things have calmed down she has ptsd, I’ve had to read up a lot on how to write that into my story. But she finds herself having to go back to a place from her journeys, a place that has ended up giving her a lot of trouble on the way of night terrors, but I didn’t have to much knowledge on how to write it very well, this helped a lot. Thanks!, only thing now is I’m not sure how to have the characters around react, Because there’s a character who wasn’t there, when the original group was in the place, he came in later on there journey. So I’m not sure how to have him react.

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  • 9th May, 2019 at 21:32
    Faith

    I’ve never myself experienced a full-blown panic attack (only a couple baby ones) so I don’t know what it feels like and before this post I had never read about one either. But, looking back at something I wrote a while back, I’m surprised at how I kinda actually wrote it somewhat accurately. Here’s the panic attack scene from my story:

    “Stop.”
    Garrett stopped abruptly in the middle of what he was saying. “What? Did I hit something?” he said, casting a glance in the rear view mirror.
    “Pull over.”
    “What–”
    “Just pull over.”
    “Okay. . . .”
    We were still in the neighborhoods. Garrett parked in front of an older house that had a fairly large front yard with a picturesque white-picket fence enclosing a little girl and two chihuahuas. I got out of the car and walked down the street to the corner, standing there in silence.
    I needed to get it together. This was the littlest thing to make a big deal of. He was just being that boy that had always had a crush on me. But that was it. Why? Why had he always had a crush on me? Why had he called me beautiful? Why were we even here together? Why?
    I heard him walk up behind me, but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want him to see how much my hands were shaking or how pale my face undoubtedly was or the tears that were filling my eyes because that was what happened when I was having a stupid, unexplainable panic attack. I cried. Every freaking time.
    “Are you okay? Did I say something?”
    I didn’t say anything. Didn’t move. I just swallowed over and over again because I felt like I had a stone in my throat, making it difficult for me breathe.
    “Mayla.”
    “I’m fine,” I gurgled out. I wanted to try again, try to say that one more time, this time more convincing. But I knew I couldn’t. Because now that I had spoken those two words, the two words that I almost never actually meant, my breathing became ragged, an odd sob slash gasp sound erupting from my mouth, and my body started to shake. If I didn’t calm down soon, I’d eventually pass out. I had done it before. I couldn’t count how many times I had worked myself up so much that I passed out.
    “Mayla,” Garrett said, coming over and grabbing me. He turned me around toward him and took my head in his hands, forcing my eyes to meet his. He looked me up and down, coming up with a diagnosis for what was happening to me, and then he said, “You’re having a panic attack.”
    I wanted to laugh, to breathe out a little “No kidding.” or “Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed.” But all I could do was nod, shutting my eyes tight and clinging to Garrett, my fingers bunching up the fabric of his jacket. I willed my lungs to stop closing in on themselves, to just stop and open up so I could breathe.
    “Mayla, look at me.”
    I opened my eyes and saw his blue ones trying to conceal the concern that still showed. He took a slow, deep breath and released it, nodding.
    “Breathe.”
    I did as I was told, breathing with him. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. We just stood there, breathing, for several minutes
    It helped. So much.

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  • 13th May, 2019 at 01:36
    Mandy

    I’m currently writing a scene right now for a short story. I wanted to make sure I wrote it as realistically as possible, and was glad I came across this! Thanks Kristina!

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  • 14th May, 2019 at 03:32
    a fellow wattpad writer

    I’m writing a horror fanfiction for one of my favorite animes, and this helped a lot to convey the main character’s panic attack. This is super helpful, thank you!

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  • 20th May, 2019 at 06:07
    Nikolai

    Something that happens to me is a shut down of the senses. It’s like going into paralysis while fully conscious, but not in the sense of being unable to process things. I’m still conscious of myself, but when I have a severe attack I lose the ability to see or hear. Everything goes black and I have trouble hearing anyone speaking to me, and all I can focus on is not fainting. Luckily, I don’t have panic attacks nearly as often as I used to, but just another take if anyone was curious.

    REPLY
  • 29th June, 2019 at 12:53
    Rose

    Can you give me some tips on how to write a rape scene? I don’t want to glorify it or anything. But my main character’s trauma is meant to be a turning point for her.

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  • 6th July, 2019 at 10:57
    Tee

    I’m writing a poem for school, for you see we have a slam poetry thing going on, which everyone has to enter
    And I thought I should write about my first panic attack.
    And it’s something like this:

    I refused to look at it
    I’d always been like that
    For example, I used to never go down the meat isle
    I always waited at the next one
    Looking down at my feet
    Just in case.
    It was in Science.
    Biology.
    I remember avoiding looking at the lump
    The featherless, pink lump
    The lump that once was alive
    A perhaps loved lump
    People stared and laughed
    I tried to ignore them
    I looked at my friends
    They purposely had their backs to me
    Preventing my eyes to see It.
    Blocking out my anxious stares
    I didn’t want to see it
    But at the same time, I did
    I was eventually convinced just to look at it
    To poke it with the metal stick
    And open it up slightly
    I did.
    That’s when the room tilted
    Blood pounded in my ears
    Heart pounding in my chest
    Breathing was hard
    Really hard
    Too hard
    I felt cold
    And then hot
    My hands felt numb, almost
    My feet tingling
    My vision disfigured
    The room becoming dark
    As if I was looking through a tinted fish eye lens
    Everyone’s shouts of disgust
    Sounded distant and far off
    As if they were in the room beside the class
    I sat down, leaning against the side
    Tears now rolling down my cheeks
    My mind spinning
    I stayed curled up for a few minutes
    Waiting for this nausea to pass
    When it did, everyone was staring
    I got up
    And looked out of the window
    Staring at the languages block
    The window was already open
    A soft breeze blowing into the room
    That was my first panic attack

    If you read this, please tell me what your thoughts are on this. It’d be good to hear someone else’s views before I decide to go through with it.
    Thank you

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  • 2nd August, 2019 at 17:30
    Elise Glamm

    This helps a lot, thank you! I write a lot of fanfiction, with characters who are very overwrought and stressed out, so this is a big help. These tips will definitely come in handy!

    REPLY

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