AIDS Care Group

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Panic Attacks: My First Experience


When I moved into a small apartment in 2005, it was my first time living on my own with no roommates, no family, and what I felt was no safety net if something went severely wrong financially. I put a heavy an unnecessary amount of weight on myself.  I was working full time at nonprofit so I could pay the bills, including full time college tuition.  I felt I had to get straight A’s. I was creating my own perfect storm.

I woke up in the middle of the night and I was unsure what had woken me up. Deciding that a quick trip to the bathroom would help me shake off the strange feeling something was wrong.  I noticed my arms and legs were very cold. My bathroom was cold so I excused the feeling of my cold limbs to that. When I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t see my reflection it seemed as if someone had put a bright light in front of my face.  Trying to see my reflection despite the bright lights I noticed that my legs and arms were getting numb and my heart rate was going up while my breathing was becoming more difficult. I dragged myself to a chair only a few feet outside of my bathroom and tried to breath. It felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest, while someone flashed a light to my face. To add to my frustration when I tried to stand up I fell down I couldn’t hold myself up.

I was grateful that my phone was on a nearby table. Not knowing what was wrong with me but worried I was losing the capability to use my muscles I called 911. All I could think of was that my muscles were not working which had caused my paralysis and my inability to breathe normally. My only thought as I waited for the dispatcher to answer was that my heart was a muscle too and it soon would stop working and I would die. The dispatcher quickly answered and I let her know what was wrong. She informed me that an ambulance was on its way. Worried that I would die before the ambulance would get there I begged her to stay on the phone with me. The dispatcher tried to calm me down as I waited but seeing my despair called the fire company to get to my house since they could get there before the ambulance. The firemen arrived and took my pressure and asked me questions. I let them know where my medications were. Within minutes they were able to realize I was having a panic attack. Although they couldn’t calm me down they coached me through breathing exercises and decided to take me to ER.

A sweet female paramedic talked to me while on the ambulance. She kept reminding that everything was going to be ok. The most important thing she told me and something that ten years later I hold on to as to one of the most precious things I’ve learned. She just called it breathing; I call it happy breathing. It’s an easy two step technique. She told me to breathe in the roses and to then blow out the birthday candles. This technique I’ve found helpful because it’s not just the breathing that is calming you down but also the visuals are putting calming happy thoughts into your head. Few people would be unhappy smelling flowers or blowing out candles.

After calming me down I was seen by a psychiatric nurse at the hospital. She and I talked for what felt forever but in reality was more like 30 minutes. She explained that what I had experienced was a panic attack and even though most people don’t get severe panic attacks like the one I had experienced the fact that my stress levels were high enough to cause one of such severity I was more than likely to experience at least another panic attack of that severity. She strongly suggested that I go into therapy to talk to someone about my stress. So began my journey into therapy. In one of my first blogs I wrote about finding the right therapist for you. About two weeks after my trip to the ER I was seeing a therapist and beginning my journey to a healthier life with less stress. In the second blog, I will share tips I’ve learned on how to control panic attacks.

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