28 Things People Don’t Realize You’re Doing Because You’re Having a Panic Attack was published on The Mighty by Haley Quinn.
Unless you’ve experienced a panic attack, you might assume it just looks like someone visibly “freaking out” — but not everyone who experiences panic attacks show noticeable symptoms. Some people have panic attacks that don’t outwardly display common signs like crying or hyperventilating, while others have symptoms you might not associate with anxiety at all.
That’s why we asked our Mighty mental health community to share with us one thing people don’t realize they’re doing because they’re having a “hidden” panic attack. Because panic attacks look different for everyone, but whether a panic attack is visible or not, it is still valid.
Here’s what our community had to say:
1. “I completely shut down. I stop talking, I don’t look at [people] anymore and my thoughts are going really quickly. I wonder how I’m going to get through this again. Then I isolate and stay alone for a while.” — Emilie J.
2. “‘Tidying up’ — if I feel panicked I start busying myself, finding things to put away or clean. It’s always small stuff, but it keeps me from meeting anyone’s eyes or having to talk, which can exacerbate a panic attack.” — Courtney L.
3. “I pick at my nails and my skin. Sometimes, if my nails are long, I’ll even scratch at myself until I bleed. I don’t notice any of it until someone points it out or I snap out of it. Panic attacks sometimes make me dissociate and then self-harm.” — Beau M.
4. “I check my pulse to reassure my brain my heart isn’t dying. Then I check the clock. Anxiety sticks around but the attack has to pass eventually, so I take back some power by starting the countdown to freedom from the panic.” — Abbey F.
5. “Avoidance. People don’t realize that often times I have to, on purpose, plan trips to the grocery store, and often times leave grocery carts half-filled and leave because I am having a panic attacks. Or [I] suddenly break out in hot sweats and can’t breathe. Leaving movie theaters, malls, grandkids’ sporting events, frequent bathroom visits, etc. I have to work my world around anxiety, which leads to panic attacks because I my body has physiological effects as well as my nervous system.” — DeAuna F.
6. “I get extremely quiet and am incapable of making eye contact. If someone attempts to interact with me I get so much pressure in my face that it burns. I don’t want to call it irritability, but I am very short when people interact with me when this happens. I am well aware it can come off as passive or rude, but it’s too hard to fake it while already trying to repress an outburst of panic.” — Emma B.
7. “I end up holding my breath. Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to catch my breath. Then I think, how is my breathing? Oh, right. Also if it gets bad enough, I’ll start pulling hairs out with tweezers and similar negative habits.” — Jennifer J.
8. “If I’m in a place I can stand up, I start walking or pacing a little bit, but I always say my legs are cramping. If I’m in a car or somewhere I can’t stand up I start humming one of my favorite songs that calms me, and most people just pass it off as a happy thing because I’m humming. They don’t know I’m fighting myself to hold it all together and I never let on that I am. I think the fact that I focus so hard on not giving into my panic and anxiety is the very thing that helps me through it — it makes me shift my focus which is what ends that particular cycle.” — Dawn M.
9. “I get really clingy and silent. I feel a really hot, and a weird searing pain in my chest that makes me completely silent because that’s all I can focus on. I get very fidgety and my skin starts to itch badly, so I start to pick at my skin until I am badly bleeding because I have another disorder called dermatillomania, and gets triggered whenever I have a panic attack.” — Jessica B.
10. “Talking really fast and digressing a lot.” — Keith E.
11. “Scrolling through social media. I’m not actively seeing anything. It’s just a way to hide sometimes.” — Jackie M.
12. “If I have the strength, I take a walk outside — anywhere at any time, even in the middle of work. Also I ‘go to the bathroom’ — that is always an easy ‘escape,’ but not to actually use the toilet. If I need a moment I can ‘go (aka just sit) in the bathroom,’ do deep breathing, probably count down from 100 by threes to get my prefrontal cortex back online and then text a friend just to have contact with the outside world, even if it’s a text about nothing at all. So if I’m in the bathroom extra long, it’s most likely notbecause I had a bad burrito.” — Rachel L.
13. “I look like I’m enjoying the view around me, but in reality I’m trying to find things to distract myself so I don’t have a visible panic attack.” — Kari L.
14. “Being hyper and over the top. Acting like a clown really.” — Abbie C.
15. “Clenching my jaw until it hurts or gives me a headache” — Laura C.
16. “Disassociation. I hide it so well, so some people don’t realize that I feel nothing is real around me.” — Liz R.
17. “I will hold my hands up and half-clench my fists. It sounds weird, but I feel like it helps me realize I’m about to have one. Another thing I’ll do is stare at the register, or a receipt or something, and pretend I’m reading.” — Shayna K.
18. “Completely zone out, especially when I’m talking to someone and have ‘static brain.’ I’m normally outgoing and bubbly, but if you see me being quiet and withdrawn then there’s something going on or I’m stuck in anxiety mode and can’t communicate or talk. Sometimes I just silent cry when I’m anxious and the only physical symptom is tears streaming down my cheeks.” — Monica T.
19. “Recently the power was flickering at work, and even though I was laughing and making jokes, I was also bracing myself against the nearest flat surface for my panic attack. I don’t think my customers or my coworkers realized what was going on.” — Carolyn M.
20. “If I’m in a situation where I start having an attack, but can’t leave or completely give in to the attack, I rub my hands together. In a way, it’s almost a way to channel the anxious energy into something that doesn’t draw attention. It helps hold off the full attack until I can find a safe space to finally get whatever I need to out.” — Katie S.
21. “I get really irritable until I can either get away from what’s going on or I actually have an attack. I was feeling like I was going to have a panic attack one day, and the next thing I know I totally snapped at my fiancé! I felt so bad!” — Kayley G.
22. “I’m not speaking and constantly looking at the door while tapping my hand on my leg. I’m trying to calm myself while making sure my exit out of the room is clear as soon as I can make a quick exit.” — Jessica S.
23. “I doze off — it’s like I am in my own little world. I see people but I don’t, and tear up sometimes I blame it on the weather or whatever. And getting lost in my thoughts.” — Lynn R.
24. “Swallowing continually. My mouth waters a lot when the panic starts bubbling up. I get very nauseous and hot. I’ve gotten good at making sure no one knows what’s up.” — Nicole S.
25. “My response time to conversations slows a lot, and my motor skills are overtaken by overstimulation so I won’t be as productive. Sometimes I can’t even move or stand.” — Claudia L.
26. “I’m on my phone a lot during ‘hidden’ panic attacks. It seems like I’m just distracted, but I’m actually trying not to cause a scene and distract myself from the anxiety. Telling me to put my phone away makes it 10 times worse, and I usually have to leave the room if I don’t have access to my phone.” — Jessica C.
27. “Repetitive movements. It might look like fidgeting, but I have certain small physical things I do to try to force my focus onto the activity and off of the panic.” — Mary-Catherine M.
28. “I sigh because I’m trying to regulate my oxygen levels. People think I’m mad when really I’m just trying not to freak out or pass out.” — Maghann L.