Now, this is something I can talk about. I’ve had some BAD panic attacks in the past, and sometimes I write about this too. It’s so important to talk about mental health, and I make no exceptions for my books. The best way I can describe a panic attack is to feel like you’re dying. You lose all control over your body and your emotions. You’re in a state of, as the name says, pure and profound panic. So, we’re going to try to write something like this.
How to Write a Panic Attack
- The before
- Physical description
- Mental state
- The after
How to Write a Panic Attack: The before
Every panic attack has a progression of facts, which means it starts, it happens, and it ends (thank God). As in any scene, you have to go step by step with it. Don’t rush things, breathe, and write each action as it’s happening.
The before of a panic attack: something triggered your character. What was it? The train of thought that will lead to a panic attack is: I can’t escape. That’s what always happens – the character has to feel trapped in the situation. It doesn’t mean that they need to be actually trapped, but they have to THINK they are.
So, the first thing you’re going to do is to set this scene: why is your character feeling trapped, where they are, and what’s the triggering thought to it?
For example, in my last two panic attacks, I was laying in bed when I saw a bee flying above me. It was trapped in the room with me. If I got up, I’d hit the bee. So, I had to lay there and wait for it to go away. But each time it flew by me, it got closer and closer to me. I couldn’t reach the door to go away, and the window was closed. I was trapped there, and I am ABSOLUTELY terrified of bees.
You don’t need to have established this fear before, your reader can find out about the fear at the moment, but it has to be real, your character needs to describe it as the end of the world, because, to them, it feels like that. They cannot escape – I could not escape the bee, if I got up, it would fly on me. It can be silly to somebody that’s not scared of bees, but you’ll describe it as the worst thing ever as if it was the scariest experience somebody could go through, and it will feel real.
Trapped, that’s the word. You feel like you lost all control, and you have nowhere to go or nothing to do besides facing your worst fear.
It could be a crowd, you’re stuck with those people and there’s no escape. It could be small spaces, you’re trapped there and you just can’t breathe. It could be a clown going in your direction, and you can’t run away. Anything can trigger a panic attack. It usually starts small with a thought like “oh oh, what will I do now?” – and then, you realize you can’t do anything. “I can’t run away!” – that’s when the attack happens.
It’s also important to note that usually, everything happens at once, and for some minutes at a time. It doesn’t last very long, because, if it did, we would just literally die. Your whole body is crashing at the same, so that’s why.
How to Write a Panic Attack: Physical description
Now you’ll the physical description. I’ll give you some of the most common symptoms:
- Hands sweating
- Heart beating fast
- Vision going black
- Short of breath (can’t breathe)
- A knot in the throat (can’t swallow)
- Lightheaded, feel like you’re going to faint
Think about some time you were very scared, very sick – feeling like throwing up, light-headed, feverish – and when you were very anxious about a test or something like that. Throw it all together and at the same time, you’ll have a panic attack.
How to Write a Panic Attack: Mental state
During a panic attack, there’s no thinking. There’s no reasoning, like, “why am I acting like that?”. You lose your consciousness in the sense of, you can’t think. It’s feral, it’s primitive. You become like an animal, and your brain wants to take you out of that situation or kill you in the process. The only thinking that happens is HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! TAKE ME OUT OF THIS SITUATION!
The only thing that I could do when I was having one of those was to scream, cry, and think I was going to die.
So, your character’s mental state is obviously a terrible wreck.
How to Write a Panic Attack: The after
After you experience one of the most frightening experiences of your life – when your brain thought you were going to literally die, and you come back from that, there’s a mix of emotions, but mostly the thought that stays is “what the hell was that?”
I personally feel ashamed to have reacted in such a way. You get exhausted because of the reaction that just happened.
You have to give time for your character to recover and process what they have gone through. It could be an introspective moment or something that propels the character forward.
Just don’t ignore the after. If your character acted, there have to be reactions to it.
How to Write a Panic Attack: Final Thoughts
Every person is different, so every character will experience panic attacks in a different way. However, I hope that I could give you some insights into the process of a panic attack. While I hope you don’t personally know what it feels like, I hope you can write a believable one.