Panic Attacks: The Wake Up Alarm

This is a chapter of a new book I’m working on. I’m writing as much as I can everyday for about an 1h and I decided to share the unedited versions here on the blog. If you’re on Twitter and you need motivation to write, I’m hosting a virtual writing session (#ShutUpAndWriteTwitter) from Monday to Friday at 10pm, London time.

I always thought that panic attacks were something really weird and not a ‘real thing’. I thought it was just a good excuse for people to run away from their responsibilities and life. I didn’t think they had panic attacks on purpose, of course, but I did think panic attacks were more of a mental fabrication than anything else. At least, until I experienced them.

I had my first panic attack when I was transitioning to the third year of my PhD. I sat in my office and in a matter of minutes my breath became shallow. A few seconds more and I suddenly knew I had to run away from there. I couldn’t stay sitting and I couldn’t focus. A weird feeling of anxiety mixed with fear was running through my veins. I simply couldn’t stay there – or worse, I clearly knew I didn’t want to be in there.

It took me a long while to understand what was really happening. I knew what panic attacks were – what psychologist is not familiar with panic attacks? -, but I wasn’t able to identify them in myself. Knowing and experiencing are quite two different things. I had also met people in my personal life who struggled with panic attacks, but I always felt they were some sort of mask, a symptom of something else. Today I think I can say that panic attacks are a serious, dramatic condition, and yet they are also a cover up of something else.

I started having panic attacks because I was stuck and dawning in a life that I hated. The panic attack was just a natural alarm to wake me up to what I was doing to myself. It was a way to make me reflect and face a couple of hard questions. When would I ever be courageous enough to be myself? When would I finally admit to everyone that I was hating my job, my social network, and the several houses I had been living in with strangers? For how long would I keep smiling and nodding, unaware of my true feelings and needs? Until when would I keep pushing myself to hide away the suffering of living in a country that only brought me a box of isolating experiences?

My panic attacks were a reflection of my multiple overwhelming feelings about life. I felt trapped and when we feel that way everything seems to be falling down; we feel like the biggest loser. Thoughts and feelings escalate to a point that a part of us knows we need to stop the madness. That’s where panic attacks come in – they are like a natural attempt to push the reset button and force things back to a more balanced state.

The tricky thing is that, when we are having a panic attack, we are rarely conscious of its reasons. In fact, part of the reason why we have a panic attack in the first place is exactly because we have been unconscious for a long, long time. We didn’t see the signs and it’s hard to admit. It’s also hard to admit that sometimes we don’t know what to do with ourselves and our life. We can’t figure out what to do and where to start.

My panic attacks decreased once I decided I wanted to live life according to my own terms and not to what it seemed to be expected of me. I was expected to endure my PhD and expat life. I was expected to meet deadlines and accept other people’s insensitivity. I was expected to smile to the friend who would put cakes under my nose, knowing about my food addiction and regardless her twenty years of experience with addiction treatment. I was expected to smile to my landlord who would host parties on weekends without giving me any notice or have a home cinema experience until way past midnight during weekdays. I was expected to ignore the fact that my family never found a way to come visit or that my mom wouldn’t pick up the phone to hear my voice and know how were things going.

At some point, I broke down really hard and I felt the need to throw all the expectations through the window, one by one. The hardest expectations to throw away were, however, the ones I held towards myself. I expected me to be strong and endure whatever came my way. I expected to be more tolerant and more resilient. Life was all about suffering for so many people in the world, so why would I be so special and saved a little?

What I didn’t see is that life doesn’t have to be only suffering. Actually, we are here to find a solution to reduce suffering and live happier. We are here to find contentment in being, not to destroy ourselves in the name of readiness, money, and social status. Once I let go all the expectations and opted for living a simpler life, my panic attacks disappeared almost immediately. Today, anxiety may kick in more harshly sometimes but when that happens I remind myself that life is far more precious than any first world problem. I remind myself that I’m only human and that I must give myself permission to just be that – human.


  1. I absolutely hate panic attacks. I’ve had anxiety for a long long time, but never experienced a full blown panic attack until more recently. I felt like I wanted to run out of my body! It’s so terrible. Great post on this! Like you, I knew what panic attacks were (former psychology student here 😀 ) but I didn’t recognize that’s what I was going through!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I went through a 5 year abusive relationship and then my son from that guy was constantly in trouble. Long story, but I’m positive that my panic attacks were coming from PTSD. Luckily I’m much better now, but I still suffer from anxiety and depression at times.


  2. Knowing and experiencing are entirely two different Things. Yes, you know it, but if you don’t have the experience of what you know you will never know how it feels. But the advantage here is that you already knew it, you can easily find a remedy as what you did. Another great post, thank you for sharing. We, your readers don’t need to experience it because we knew it already from you and you’ve already given us the solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I suspect that I’ve had anxiety for a long time, but it was only recently diagnosed during a recent relapse into mental illness.

    I’ve had panic attacks while driving (resulting in me having to pull over), I’ve had panic attacks while in work and I’ve even had panic attacks for seemingly no reason. It got worse during my final year of university and progressed from there to the moment I was diagnosed. At that point, I was lying awake at night worrying about everything you could possibly think off.

    Thank you for writing this. I love your writing hours on Twitter. Even if I don’t comment I have an alarm set and I always use that hour to either write or research :).

    – Nyxie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s nice to know the Shut Up and Write thing is working for you to be productive ❤ It has helped me to tackle my writing project too and reduce the anxiety/overwhelm it would otherwise cause me. Knowing that someone else is working on something somewhere else is motivating 🙂

      Panic attacks from nowhere really suck. Have you been able to track down the main triggers? I know mine and I still have to work out the shame and guilt I feel about them. I'm going to read your post on anxiety right away and know more about your experience 🙂 thank you for sharing your brave story! ❤


    1. Without wanting to be too dramatic, it’s a hell. What shocks me, even more, was to be a ‘mature student’ (according to 18-year olds, haha) once attending a workshop on ‘writing for wellbeing’ and seeing on the other side of the table two undergraduate students almost distilling in anxiety. There are many things going wrong in higher education and on how we have been educated in this modern world, I just hope I can wrap this at some point and start doing something about it…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The feeling of just needing to run and go and overwhelming fear and anxiety is awful. I had my first panic attack at work about 10 years ago and I just got up from my desk and ran upstairs to the toilets to hide, although my director saw me and kindly took me into a room for a chat. I had no idea what was happening to me. Thanks for writing about this and sharing your experience which will certainly help others. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must have been really scary. On the moment it’s like our brain freezes… I hope your director understood the situation and you weren’t penalized or discriminated in any way. My experience hasn’t been very positive in that regard, people will say they understand once something physical happens (e.g. pulmonary infection) but an hour later they will keep contributing to the snowball of overwhelming feelings. I gave up explaining but I need to find a loving way to go around it before I put my foot in the UK again 😀 xx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was scary, thankfully she was lovely and let me talk and then she explained about her partner having mental health issues and understood….I think if it had be anyone else they may not have got it like she did. She helped after by finding a list of therapist….after the wait list was going to be 6 weeks on the nhs and I just couldn’t wait that long. Aww that’s awful, sorry to hear about your bad experience. I do agree some people don’t understand it with it not being physical. I hope you do come back to the UK. Xx

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That was so sweet (and professional) of her! I get so happy when I hear stories of ‘happy’ situations in the workplace like this. It can make such a great difference in people’s lives and on their return to work afterward. Fingers crossed that things are changing for the better. I have the feeling that you already are and will contribute to it even more too xx

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Yet again you hit the nail on the head with the reasons behind your body sending you messages and how difficult it is to ‘listen’ if we’ve been ‘asleep’ for years and years. Wonderful insights. Sending love 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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