Don’t Panic! — Writing About Anxiety

Panic -- Photo by ClaraDonWhen I was at a writing convention last year, I took part in a workshop designed to strengthen characterisation. We did a number of exercises in the workshop, many of them in small groups where we could discuss our characters and stories.

During one such exercise, we split into groups of three or four people and were instructed to share the pivotal dark moment of our novel; a turning point, where the protagonist has to face and overcome a major conflict.

One of the women in my group was writing a YA novel about a girl facing bullying at school. The scene she described went something like this:

The protagonist has to get on a school bus and everyone is mocking her and she has a panic attack. Then she sits down on the bus and doesn’t let the mean kids win.

As someone who has suffered anxiety attacks for most of my life, I had questions. Lots of them. Like, what triggered the attack? What happens while she’s having it? Has she had them before?

The author seemed bamboozled by my questions. Confused.

The other kids are making fun of her like normal, and she’s just had enough. So she has a panic attack and then decides not to put up with it anymore and just sits next to someone she doesn’t know.

I ask some more questions, but get the same information delivered in a variety of ways.The other two members of the group nod and smile and congratulate the author on using a panic attack as a form of conflict, because it’s so “original” and “unique” — and, one of them adds, fairly easy to write, because there’s no actual bad guy and the girl just has to stop panicking.

And I found myself wondering: Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this scene is nonsensical?

Over the last few months, I’ve come to realise that most people don’t know what it’s actually like to experience a panic attack. Look up ‘panic attack’ on the internet, and you’ll find various websites that list symptoms like breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, light-headedness, weakness, dizziness, feeling of doom, nausea, intense fear, and depersonalization — plus plenty of other “less common” symptoms. Then there’s a note advising that “not everyone who experiences a panic attack experiences all of these symptoms”.

But it’s rare to find a description of what it actually feels like to experience a panic attack. Now, I’m not an expert on anxiety. But I’ve suffered through more panic attacks in my life than I care to count. (The first I clearly remember was when I was eight years old.) Allow me to share what it’s like to be in my head during one of these attacks.

Maybe it will help you in your writing. Maybe it will help you understand what someone close to you is experiencing. Maybe it will help you feel you’re not alone. Just keep in mind that not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way. This is how I experience them.

(If you suffer from panic attacks, please consider whether you wish to read further.)


These clothes need to be washed by hand. Whose idea was it to volunteer for this job, anyway?

I turn on the tap and let the water run for a bit before I put in the plug. The kids are in the next room. I can hear them playing, giggling and laughing. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be arguing again and I’ll have to go intervene. I have to hurry. I have to get this washing done.

The water splashes into the tub, filling it up far too slowly. The rush of water, drops spattering on the sides, the harsh sound of water against metal. It echoes off the walls, drowning out other sounds. I can’t hear the kids now. Why did I volunteer for this? Why am I washing these clothes? This isn’t my job. I can’t–

I can’t do it.

The water is too loud. Everything is too loud. I need to turn off the tap, stop the water running. But if I do that, I can’t do the washing. And I have to do the washing. I can’t–

I can’t let them down. I can’t–

Too loud. I turn off the tap. That will do. The water will do. But there’s too much of it. The water makes it hard to breathe. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. My heart races. It’s pounding so hard, it feels like it will pound its way through my chest. I can feel it there. Pounding. Harder. Faster. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. No breath. My lungs don’t work. My chest is tight. Too tight. Squeezing my heart. I try to suck in air, but my heart is pounding too hard. No air. My arms go number, pins and needles starting at my fingers and racing up my arms like wildfire. All consuming. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I have to get this washing done. Dump the clothes into the sink. Try to act like I can’t–

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this . I just can’t–

I can’t hear the children. Is that good? Are they okay? Should I go check on them? No. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I can’t–

I can’t stop this. My heart feels funny. Light. Like there’s no air. My eyes are hurting, sucked back into my head, like there’s nothing in the space behind them. No air. No blood. My heart is racing and I can’t–

I can’t feel anything in my arms. I can’t–

I can’t make it stop. I can’t–

I can. I know what this is. It’s just anxiety. It’s just panic. I know what this is. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. I can–

I can’t.

I can’t see . The world is black and grey. Spots of colour. It doesn’t make sense. My arms are numb. My legs. The ground is rolling and I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. Slowly. I need to…

The children are calling. I hear them, but I can’t–

I can’t go out there. I can’t face them. I can’t breathe. The air is too–

The clothes. I need to wash the clothes. I need to feel normal. Dump the clothes in the water. Take a deep breath. Start to wash them. Stop my heart from pounding. Concentrate. Focus. Breathe. In. Out. In Out. I can’t–

I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t face this anymore. I can’t feel. I can’t–

I can.

Wash the clothes. Deep breaths. Calm. I need to calm. I can’t–

I can’t find myself. The weave of the cotton I’m washing is so loose. I can see the gaps between the strands and I slip between them, slip into nothing, disappear. I don’t even exist. I am nothing. My head is full of clouds and water, and the water is in the tub, and the clothes in the water, and there’s nothingness. I am nothingness. I can’t–

I can’t feel myself. I don’t–

I don’t feel–

My eyes hurt. They fill with tears. Are they my eyes? I can’t–

I can’t cry. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop. I can’t–

A child. Talking. His words are noise, so loud, so loud I can’t hear them. I can’t–

I can’t fall down. I can’t give up. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I smile. I nod. I hope the child will go away. I try to breathe. I feel something behind me. A wall. I sink down it and let my head fall and tears fall and life fall and I fall and I can’t–

I can’t.

I can’t.

I can’t move.

Time. I’m on the floor. I don’t know how I get here. How did I get here? My eyes hurt. My chest hurts. My arms are numb and tingle. Time. How much is gone? I run my hands over my skin and it hurts, like needles in my flesh. The light is too bright. It hurts my eyes. I can’t–

I can’t go out there. The lights are too bright. The sounds are too loud. Every touch on my skin is agony. Don’t get too close. Don’t look me in the eye or you might know me, you might see me, you might see I’m not real. I can’t–

I can’t just sit here.

I can’t just sit here forever. I have to move.

My head aches. I feel tired. Empty. Hollow. Like the life has drained out of me.

My breathing evens out. My heartbeat slows.

I stand up and go back to washing the clothes.

I can’t keep doing this.


Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff, Writing

24 responses to “Don’t Panic! — Writing About Anxiety

  1. This is really intense. I’ve never had a panic attack, but I’ve felt something similar-but less intense-than this on many occasions. It’s scary.

    Reading this made me think of your dream. The one with the party and the bathroom outside? Did you have that dream around a time when you had a panic attack?

    • I think just about everyone feels anxious at some point, and have moments where they feel some or all of these symptoms. That’s not pleasant, but it’s fairly normal. A panic attack is generally more intense, and can be completely debilitating. (They get much worse than the one I’ve described here, but this is a pretty good example of what I feel in a “standard” panic attack.) If you have intense feelings of anxiety on a semi-regular basis, you should really talk to a doctor about it. Just to be on the safe side.

      As for the dream… I don’t actually remember if I was having panic attacks around that time. Maybe I’m just always scary and intense? 🙂

  2. I couldn’t read your story, not as it happens because I’ve ever had a panic attack but because I’m extremely logodelicate (a neologism for ‘sensitive to words’) and if the description is of the same quality as the introduction it’s going to send my head spinning.

    You are absolutely correct about it being a preposterous notion that ‘having a panic attack’ is an option for avoiding conflict. It must have been very difficult for you (I already want to verbally slap that particular person);. arrogant or confident ignorance is the worst…

    • P.S. Obviously I don’t want to verbally slap you! I meant the author!

      P.P.S. Given your blog title you may enjoy a couple of lists of obscure words I put together:

    • Thanks for reading and commenting — and for sharing the word ‘logodelicate’, which I’m going to attempt to use in a sentence at the first opportunity I get.
      At the time, I was more bewildered than angry. And having spoken to a number of people since, I’ve come to realise that ignorance about mental health issues is pretty common. I like to think that the author in question did some more research and come to her own conclusions about the scene.

  3. MerylF

    What this lacks for the reader is the understanding of _why_ she had the panic attack. Without that, it’s hard to really connect with her feelings. She can’t wash the clothes. So? Why? Why does it matter? Or, what triggered the attack that landed on her while she was trying to wash the clothes? With that included, this could be really powerful.

    I also agree with you about the clueless writer just throwing out a panic attack as a plot device. If it’s not built up properly as part of the MCs character and past events, it’s pointless and unreal.

    Good on you for pitching in and trying to make the clueless writer understand.

    • You’re right, of course, about the need to understand the “why” to properly connect, and in fiction that’s even more important. (Because unlike real life, fiction has to actually make sense.) I think most writers can come up with scenarios where a panic attack may be triggered. If the above was part of a piece of fiction, it would make sense to have the clothes washing part of the stakes of the scene. In this case, I was trying to show the internal thoughts and emotions of a panic attack, rather than invoking sympathy for the character.

      Mind you, in real life it’s rarely that simple. There isn’t necessarily an obvious trigger for an attack. Or, if there is, it can be something that makes absolutely no sense in the greater scheme of things — like a shape or a colour or a sound that triggers a feeling of being out of control. I’ve had panic attacks triggered by looking at braided hair, for example.

      • MerylF

        Can I now tell you about my comeuppance? I had my first panic attack coming out of the anesthetic yesterday. Absolutely no clue why.

        So maybe this is something that is easier to understand when you have actually been through one. Because when I first read this post, it made no sense to me at all.

        We live and learn.

      • It’s absolutely not funny that you had a panic attack — trust me when I say you have my sympathies — but it’s a little bit funny to think that in the middle of having one, you stopped and thought, “Oh. This is what Jo was talking about.” Come on, just a little bit?

        Fingers crossed you never have to go through another one. But at least if you ever want to use one in your writing, you’ll know how to do it realistically.

      • MerylF

        It’s totally funny. I didn’t think about your post at the time. In fact, it wasn’t until afterwards when the nurse asked me “do you often get panic attacks” that I realised it was a panic attack. And then I had to come back and tell you. Slapped on the arse by karma 🙂 (Not that Karma 😉 )

  4. The “I can’t…” repetition matches my experience pretty damn well.

    The other author’s use of it seemed nonsensical to me. It’s like I’m facing this problem, and then I have this completely debilitating crisis, so of course it allows me to jump up and be victorious.

    • I think the other author was just inexperienced, and working on a very flawed idea of what a panic attack would be like. It’s amazing how little information there still is about mental health problems.

      And thanks for your comment about your own experience. It helps to know my description is somewhat typical of other people, if not exactly “normal”.

  5. OK, another panic attack sufferer chiming in here. With regards to the woman in your writing group, it’s quite obvious she used the term “panic attack” w/o knowing what it means. I’m struggling with even trying to figure out what she intended–did she mean the school bus rider got upset? Had thoughts of dread? Those are all typical (and normal, though I hate to use that term) reactions to unpleasantness of any sort.

    Anyway, love your example–the craziness (and again, I use a word and I mean no offense) of panic attacks is the absolute mundanity of it all. There is no “why” for it. It happens when you are washing clothes, and for me, when I would go to the grocery store (among other things). I would be absolutely seized with terror, my legs weak, my head spinning, sure I was about to collapse, just walking through the automatic doors at the Sav-a-lot.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Karen. I appreciate you sharing some of your own experiences, too. The more information that we put out there, the more chance there is that writers who want to use panic attacks as a plot point will do so realistically. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who says there’s no real “why” for it — and I feel for you in regards to the grocery store. Panic attacks in public places are so much worse than panic attacks at home.

  6. I compare panic attacks to a hyped up bout of depression. Does that make sense? Prior to medication, I’d become paralyzed with “I can’t do it”, but my heart-rate would not be fast. Whereas in a panic attack, you get the same sense of ‘I can’t do it” with a rapid heart rate.
    It’s a speed for depression. Ha. *sigh*
    My heart goes out to you and everyone else that battles these panic attacks.
    Excellent writing, by the way.

    • Thanks very much, Lenore.

      And yeah, it has a lot of similarities with depression, although it’s obviously a much more intense and short-lived experience. At least for me, the longest panic attack I’ve had would have only lasted for a few hours.

  7. I haven’t “liked” this since it’s clear that having panic attacks like the one you describe is not something I’d wish on anybody. I can’t begin to understand the circumstances that trigger such attacks, but I applaud your strength and courage in recreating what it’s like for you when it’s obviously very distressing.

    The comment from the writing group member who claims that “there’s no actual bad guy” where bullying on the bus is concerned is insensitive, to say the least, and the advice that “the girl just has to stop panicking” shows a lack of comprehension of how out of control victims feel when they are bullied by people or circumstances, and how impossible it is to just snap out of it when that lack of control leads to a panic attack.

    Apologies for banging a drum for my partner, but anyone who’s been or feels bullied (and that’s pretty much all of us) could do worse than check out for practical advice on how to deal with bullying situations.

    • Jak Henson

      While there are similarities between your example and my panic attacks, my thoughts (which are much more paranoid) are the strongest and scariest part of my attacks. (So I thought I’d share a brief example from a different angle)

      My anxiety is most commonly triggered by particular noises or someone being in my large personal space. I initally react with a fight or flight response once all the symptoms you mentioned have kicked in, but my thoughts then go crazy. I visualise different scenarios of how the person near me, who most commonly is my partner, is going to kill me. I try to calmy get away from them without them seeing my fear, and after a few experiences of running down the street only wearing underwear to find safety, I now make sure I’m clothed and lock myself in a room, making sure I have an exit. While trying to calm myself and telling myself it’s irrational I normally visualise my dog being killed instead of me, because the person knows how much that would hurt me, and I’m not there to protect him. The panic attack normally starts after this.

      I am already unable to see, my chest is tight, I’m unable to cry because I am in such a high state of adrenalin, my stomach is knotted, I am sweating, and don’t want anyone to see me, because I am breathing heavily and if anyone asks me what’s wrong, I know there will be a flood of horrible visions and I will lose the ability to breath. Of which this has happened numerous times, but as I mentioned, the loss of breath is not as scary as my fear that I will be killed. (All completely irrational – and ridiculous to think anyone could just decide not to panic anymore.)

      The other thing is the guilt afterwards. I normally struggle for about 2 days afterwards where i can’t look anyone in the eye, I don’t have the confidence to make decisions and I don’t feel worthy to be in a relationship. But I am very thankful to have an awesome partner who just handles it and makes me feel special again afterwards – even after on one occasion I locked him outside for hours while I freaked out. When I let him in he gave me a hug.

      • Wow. Quite frankly, your account makes me content to stick with the trauma I know. I certainly don’t have any of the “someone is trying to kill me” thoughts. In my more intense panic attacks, I can get overwhelmed by thoughts of disappearing, slipping between the strands of reality until I no longer exist. I find myself panicking because I don’t know if I’m really real anymore, or if anything is real, and struggling to find a way to define reality.

        I also have the guilt thing, though. Not usually for so long, but for at least the next few hours. I can’t look at anyone, I find it hard to talk to people, and I just drift through life struggling to bounce back from the extremity of what just happened.

        Oh, and I’m really glad you’ve found such a great partner who accepts you — and all the “crazy”. 🙂 ❤

    • You’re always welcome to “bang the drum” for your partner. Bullying is a topic I feel very strongly about, and the easier it is for anyone being bullied to find resources, the better. Thanks for leaving that link here.

      You’re right, the writer’s comments do show a lack of comprehension, and I think that’s a sign of how misunderstood bullying behaviour, anxiety, and related conditions are by the mainstream public — thus my decision to share my own experience. Thanks for reading, understanding, and commenting.

  8. Thank you for illustrating this so well. You really show that personal experience is the best place from which to write!

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