How To Describe a Panic Attack in Writing (Ultimate Guide)

As a writer, capturing the intricate details of a panic attack with accuracy and sensitivity is crucial.

It’s not just about crafting compelling narratives but also about raising awareness and fostering empathy.

Here’s how to describe a panic attack in writing:

Describe a panic attack in writing by focusing on triggers, physical symptoms, emotional responses, thought processes, aftermath, and social impact. Use vivid, relatable language and avoid clichés and overdramatization for an accurate portrayal.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about how to describe a panic attack in writing.

How To Describe a Panic Attack in Writing (Realistically)

(This post may have afilliate links. Please see my full disclosure)
Cartoon woman having a panic attack - How to describe a panic attack in writing
I made this image – How to describe a panic attack in writing

To realistically describe a panic attack in writing, you must know and cover:

  1. Triggers – These can range from specific phobias, such as fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), to more general triggers like stress, overexertion, or even certain thoughts. It’s important to note that sometimes panic attacks may occur without any apparent trigger.
  2. Symptoms – Panic attack symptoms can be physical and emotional. They often include feelings of intense fear or impending doom, accelerated heartbeat, perspiration, shivering, difficulty breathing, and sensations of spiraling out of control or losing sanity.
  3. Emotional Expression – People experiencing panic attacks might exhibit their fear and discomfort in a variety of ways. This could range from crying and screaming to complete silence and withdrawal.
  4. Mental Expression – The mental turmoil during a panic attack can be intense. It can manifest as racing thoughts, heightened fear, confusion, or the feeling of being detached from reality.
  5. Aftermath – After a panic attack, the individual often feels drained and may need time to recover. They could experience lingering fear about having another attack, which can impact their day-to-day activities.
  6. Social Impact – Panic attacks can affect relationships and social interactions. The person might start avoiding social situations for fear of having an attack, leading to isolation and strained relationships.

Don’t worry: we’re going to dive into each one of these areas right now.

How to Describe the Triggers of a Panic Attack in Writing

There can be many triggers for a panic attack.

Read through these examples to get inspired to write about panic attacks. A good tip I’ve found is to connect the trigger to the plot and theme of the story.

1. The Unexpected Phone Call

Many panic attacks don’t require an immediate, visible threat.

Something as simple as an unexpected phone call can trigger an attack in someone prone to anxiety.

The sudden ringing of the phone, the worry about who’s on the other end or what news they might bring—these elements can serve as triggers.


The shrill ring of the phone sliced through the room’s silence, ripping Sam from his focused state. His heart pounded against his rib cage, an unrelenting rhythm of fear. Each successive ring was like a strike of lightning, jolting him further into an abyss of dread.

2. An Innocuous Reminder

Objects, smells, locations, or even specific phrases can serve as triggers for panic attacks.

These triggers may seem harmless to the average person, but they can be tied to past traumatic events or negative experiences for the individual experiencing the panic attack.


Upon entering the room, the faint scent of lavender immediately filled Lisa’s senses. It was the same aroma that used to linger on her mother’s clothes. Her heartbeat quickened, a bead of sweat formed at her temples, and she was quickly enveloped by an avalanche of panic, brought on by this innocent reminder of her loss.

3. The Unseen Specter of Stress

Chronic stress can also be a trigger for panic attacks.

It could be stress from work, relationships, health, or any other aspect of life. The constant strain can make a person more susceptible to panic attacks.


For weeks, Paul had been feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, each project deadline acting like another brick in the wall of stress he had to contend with. As the emails piled up in his inbox, a familiar icy fear began to crawl up his spine, triggering the all-too-familiar onset of a panic attack.

4. The Quiet Room Trigger

Sometimes, triggers can stem from places or states of being that are generally considered peaceful.

For instance, being alone in a quiet room can trigger a panic attack for some, as the silence might heighten their sense of isolation and amplify their fears.


Jason sat alone in the quiet room, the silence pressing against his ears. Each tick of the clock seemed to echo in the vast emptiness, amplifying his feelings of isolation. As his fears began to take shape in the shadows, the familiar grip of panic tightened around his chest.

5. A Flash of a Traumatic Past

Triggers often bring back memories or flashbacks of a traumatic past.

The trigger catapults the person right back to a terrifying experience, initiating a panic attack.


The crash of the dishes hitting the floor sent Alice spiraling back to that night. Her heart pounded in her chest, mimicking the rhythm of her past fear. Each echo of the crash was a flashback, a trigger pulling her into the throes of a panic attack.

6. The Phantom of the Mind

Some panic attacks can be triggered by seemingly nothing at all.

They sneak up on the person, a phantom born from the mind, causing fear and confusion along with the usual physical symptoms.


Out of nowhere, the panic attack pounced on Brian. It was a phantom of his mind, invisible but terrifying, sending him into a state of terror even though there was no discernible reason for his fear.

How To Describe the Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks in Writing

Let’s start with a list of the symptoms.

And then we will explore how to best describe several of the most likely symptoms.

List of Panic Attack Symptoms

  1. Perspiring excessively
  2. Quivering or quaking
  3. Difficulty breathing or gasping for air
  4. Sensation of being strangled
  5. Discomfort or ache in the chest
  6. Stomach upset or abdominal pain
  7. Feeling faint or a sensation of the room spinning
  8. Sudden cold chills or intense heat flashes
  9. Pins and needles or loss of sensation
  10. Feeling detached from oneself or reality
  11. Terrified of spiraling out of control or losing one’s sanity
  12. Mortal fear or apprehension of imminent death

Here is a good, short video about what a panic attack looks like in real life:

YouTube video by JakeGoodmanMD – How to describe a panic attack in writing

1. A Wave of Nausea

The signs of a panic attack can change from person to person, and feeling sick to your stomach is one of these possible signs.

The individual may feel as if they’re about to vomit, even if they haven’t eaten anything that could have upset their stomach.

This feeling can contribute to the overall sense of dread and discomfort.


Suddenly, a wave of nausea swept over Rebecca. It was an intense, all-consuming feeling as if she were on a boat being rocked by a stormy sea. The room seemed to spin, adding to her sense of unease, and she was acutely aware of the terrifying onset of a panic attack.

2. Racing Heartbeat

A rapid, pounding heartbeat is one of the most common symptoms of a panic attack.

It can feel so strong that the individual worries they’re having a heart attack, which can further exacerbate the panic attack.


Her heartbeat pounded in her ears, a galloping stallion that wouldn’t be tamed. Each beat echoed her growing fear, becoming the overwhelming soundtrack to the panic attack that gripped her.

3. The Cold Grip of Fear

The experience of a panic attack can often feel as though an icy hand is squeezing the heart, causing an indescribable feeling of fear that seems to radiate from within.

This can be a powerful way to describe the emotional toll of a panic attack.


Adam felt as though a hand of ice had reached inside his chest, gripping his heart with a vice-like hold. It was an unshakeable fear, one that seemed to seep into his bones, magnifying the panic that was rapidly overtaking him.

4. Stolen Breath

Breathlessness is one of the key physical symptoms of a panic attack.

The person may feel as if someone or something has stolen their breath, causing further anxiety and fear.


Ben felt as if someone had punched him in the gut, stealing his breath. He gasped for air, but each breath felt shallower than the last. The terror of not being able to breathe properly further fueled the panic attack.

5. The Dizzying Heights of Fear

The experience of a panic attack can be likened to standing at dizzying heights, where the world seems to spin, and a fall feels inevitable.

This can serve to illustrate both the physical symptom of dizziness and the fear associated with panic attacks.


Anna felt as if she were standing at the edge of a tall building, the world spinning around her. Her heart pounded in her chest like a drum, amplifying her fear of the dizzying heights of her panic.

How to Describe the Emotional Side of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks not only come with physical symptoms but also emotional ones.

And the emotional impact can be significant.

Here is what you need to know to describe the emotional side of panic attacks.

1. The Cold Grip of Fear

The experience of a panic attack can often feel as though an icy hand is squeezing the heart, causing an indescribable feeling of fear that seems to radiate from within.

This can be a powerful way to describe the emotional toll of a panic attack.


Adam felt as though a hand of ice had reached inside his chest, gripping his heart with a vice-like hold. It was an unshakeable fear, one that seemed to seep into his bones, magnifying the panic that was rapidly overtaking him.

2. The Suffocating Spiral

Panic attacks can feel like being trapped in a downward spiral, a feeling of suffocation from which there seems to be no escape.

This can contribute to the overwhelming sense of fear and the urgency to escape the situation.


Emily felt as though she were spiraling down a never-ending abyss, each breath becoming more labored, each heartbeat pounding louder and faster. She was a prisoner to her own fear, held captive by the panic that had her in its merciless grip.

3. Overwhelming Tidal Wave


The emotional turmoil during a panic attack can often be likened to a tidal wave.

It can start as a mere ripple of discomfort, gradually building in intensity until it becomes an overwhelming surge of fear that crashes over the person, leaving them feeling helpless and terrified.


Mark felt a ripple of unease, small at first, but rapidly growing in intensity. It was like a tidal wave of fear, building with each passing second, ready to crash over him with all its might. He was powerless against the onslaught of panic that was about to engulf him.

4. The False Calm

The aftermath of a panic attack can often feel like the calm after a storm.

But this calm can be deceptive, with the individual feeling drained, shaky, and still somewhat anxious.


The storm of panic had passed, leaving Lilly in a state of deceptive calm. Her body felt drained, her hands were still trembling, and a thin veil of anxiety hung over her like an unwanted shroud.

5. Swirling Maelstrom of Fear

To describe the emotional side of a panic attack, think of it as a swirling maelstrom of fear and anxiety.

This metaphor underscores the intensity and unpredictability of the feelings during an attack.


The panic attack descended upon Sarah like a maelstrom, a swirling vortex of fear and anxiety. It twisted and turned unpredictably, dragging her down into its tumultuous depths, her world spinning out of control.

6. Paralyzed by Panic

During a panic attack, the person may feel completely paralyzed, as if an unseen force has bound them.

This description communicates the terrifying immobility that one can feel during an episode.


David felt an unseen force pushing him down, holding him in place. His muscles wouldn’t obey his commands, and he found himself unable to move. He was paralyzed by the panic, trapped in his own body, as terror gripped him.

How to Describe the Mental Side of a Panic Attack

There is also a mental side of panic attacks.

Keep reading to find out how to describe the mental impact of your character’s panic.

1. Unwanted Thought Intrusion

During a panic attack, unwanted, intrusive thoughts can take hold.

They are often negative and fear-inducing, which can make the panic attack even more distressing.


Her mind became a battlefield, filled with unwanted intruders that took the form of fearsome thoughts. Each one was darker and more terrifying than the last, exacerbating the panic that she was already struggling to control.

2. Warped Reflection

A person experiencing a panic attack may feel like they’re looking at the world through a distorted lens.

Their thoughts can become twisted, intensifying their fears and contributing to the overall panic.


The world seemed to warp around George, as though he were looking at it through a twisted piece of glass. His thoughts spiraled out of control, each one more distorted than the last, amplifying the panic that was already coursing through him.

3. The Self-Doubting Torrent

During a panic attack, the person may be plagued by self-doubting and self-deprecating thoughts.

They can feel like a torrent, overwhelming the person and exacerbating their panic.


Each thought was a drop in the torrent of self-doubt that filled Matthew’s mind. They flowed together, forming a river of negativity that threatened to drown him, fueling the panic that had taken hold.

How to Describe the Progression of Panic Attacks in Writing

Panic attacks happen in stages that withdraw, rise up, and overlap in a giant messy blender of experience.

Here are some of ways to describe the progression.

1. The Avalanche of Fear

Panic attacks vary in intensity—some may feel like a sudden avalanche of fear, hitting the individual with a force that leaves them breathless and terrified.


Suddenly, the panic attack hit Tom, an avalanche of fear that swept him off his feet. It was a brutal force, all-consuming, leaving him gasping for breath in its devastating wake.

2. The Creeping Shadow of Panic

Some panic attacks don’t hit suddenly but creep in slowly, much like a shadow gradually covering a room.

This creeping panic can be just as terrifying, as the individual can feel it approaching but feels powerless to stop it.


Mia could feel the panic attack creeping in, like a shadow slowly enveloping her. She felt a sense of impending doom, a cold fear slowly spreading through her body, turning her insides to ice.

3. The Quickening Storm

The pace of a panic attack can escalate quickly.

What might begin as a simple unease can swiftly grow into a tempest of terror, heightening the sense of unpredictability and fear.


The unease began as a small cloud in Jacob’s mind. But within seconds, it grew into a thunderstorm of panic. The swift escalation left him breathless, his heart pounding like a drum against his ribs.

4. The Gathering Dread

Some panic attacks develop gradually, the fear and anxiety gathering momentum over time.

This build-up can add to the stress and the sense of inevitability that exacerbates the panic attack.


Over the course of the afternoon, Olivia could feel the panic attack building. Each hour, her anxiety intensified, the dread growing like a storm on the horizon. By the time it hit, she was a tangled mess of fear and helplessness.

5. The Lingering Fog

Panic attacks can leave a residual feeling of unease, like a fog that doesn’t quite lift.

This “fog” can linger for hours or even days, serving as a harsh reminder of the attack.


Even after the worst of the panic attack had passed, a lingering fog of anxiety remained around Noah. It dulled his senses and cast a gray hue over everything, a constant reminder of his recent battle with fear.

6. The Ebbing Tide of Panic

The progression of a panic attack can be described as an ebbing tide.

Just as the sea gradually retreats after high tide, the symptoms of a panic attack also recede slowly, leaving the individual feeling drained but somewhat relieved.


Like an ebbing tide, the symptoms of her panic attack started to recede. The pounding in her chest slowed, her breath started to come easier, and the stranglehold of fear began to loosen. Lily was left feeling as though she had run a marathon, drained yet relieved that the worst was over.

7. The Numbness After the Storm

After a panic attack, a person may feel numb, emotionally and physically drained.

This numbness can last for a while, serving as a stark reminder of the intensity of the experience.


After the storm of her panic attack had passed, Lisa was left feeling numb. Her body felt heavy, her mind a blank slate. The world around her seemed distant, muted, as if she were viewing it from the other side of a foggy window.

How to Describe the Social Impact of Panic Attacks in Writing

We can’t overlook the effect that panic attacks have on relationships – both personally and professionally.

1. The Isolation of Panic

Panic attacks can often make a person feel isolated, even when they’re surrounded by people.

This sense of isolation can add to their distress and contribute to the severity of their attack.


Even in the crowded room, David felt a deep sense of isolation. His panic attack set him adrift in a sea of people, lost and alone. The noise around him seemed to fade into the background as his fear took center stage, amplifying his sense of being alone.

2. The Strain on Relationships

Panic attacks can strain relationships.

The person experiencing the attacks may withdraw from loved ones, or their loved ones might not fully understand what they’re going through.

This can cause tension and misunderstanding.


Ever since her panic attacks started, Sarah could feel a growing distance between her and her friends. She often withdrew, fearing an attack in their presence, and their lack of understanding only amplified her sense of isolation. The strain was palpable, adding another layer of worry to her already burdened mind.

3. The Disruption in Work and Relationships

Panic attacks can significantly impact a person’s work performance and professional relationships.

The unpredictability of attacks can cause them to avoid certain situations or tasks.

Lack of understanding from colleagues can lead to feelings of isolation and stress, further impacting their work and interpersonal relationships.


Since the onset of his panic attacks, John found it increasingly difficult to perform at work. Important meetings triggered his anxiety, making him avoid them. His productivity slipped, and the lack of understanding from his colleagues made him feel increasingly isolated. The ripple effects of his panic attacks were seeping into his professional life, disrupting his performance and straining his work relationships.

How to Write a Panic Attack in First Person

Writing a panic attack in the first person can make it more intimate and allow the reader to step directly into the character’s shoes.

Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Use “I” Statements – First-person narration uses “I” statements, which can make the narrative more personal and engaging.
  2. Convey Physical Sensations – Describe the physical sensations as the character experiences them. Example: “My heart is racing like a runaway train, and I can feel the sweat trickling down my back. My hands shake, and I can barely catch my breath.”
  3. Portray the Emotional Experience – Communicate the character’s emotions during the attack. Example: “Fear is consuming me, swallowing me whole. I feel like I’m falling into a bottomless pit of terror, and there’s no way out.”
  4. Express the Cognitive Experience – Share the character’s thoughts and fears. Example: “Thoughts are racing through my mind: ‘I can’t control this. I can’t breathe. What if someone sees me like this?’ The thoughts are as suffocating as the fear itself.”
  5. Describe the Aftermath – Don’t forget to write about how the character feels after the panic attack. Example: “When the fear finally recedes, I’m left feeling hollow, as if the panic attack has drained every ounce of energy from me. The dread of experiencing another attack lingers, casting a shadow over my relief.”

Remember, the goal is to write a realistic, empathetic portrayal of a panic attack that respects the serious nature of the experience and connects with the reader.

Best Words to Describe a Panic Attack

  1. Terrifying: Causing extreme fear
  2. Overwhelming: Difficult to fight against
  3. Intense: Of extreme force, degree, or strength
  4. Sudden: Happening or coming quickly and unexpectedly
  5. Debilitating: Making someone very weak and infirm
  6. Unpredictable: Not able to be predicted
  7. Crippling: Causing severe impairment
  8. Paralyzing: Causing incapacity or powerlessness
  9. Alarming: Worrying or disturbing
  10. Frenzied: Wildly excited or uncontrolled
  11. Hysterical: Deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion
  12. Frantic: Distraught with fear or anxiety
  13. Panicky: Feeling or characterized by panic
  14. Fearful: Feeling afraid; showing fear or anxiety
  15. Anxious: Feeling or showing worry or nervousness
  16. Distressing: Causing anxiety or stress
  17. Dread-filled: Full of great fear or apprehension
  18. Horrifying: Causing horror or great fear
  19. Stressful: Causing mental or emotional stress
  20. Harrowing: Acutely distressing
  21. Frightening: Making someone afraid or anxious; terrifying
  22. Agonizing: Causing great physical or mental pain
  23. Chaotic: In a state of complete disorder and confusion
  24. Disturbing: Causing anxiety; worrying
  25. Unnerving: Making one feel nervous or frightened
  26. Exhausting: Making one feel very tired
  27. Devastating: Highly destructive or damaging
  28. Threatening: Having a hostile or deliberately frightening quality or manner
  29. Pulsating: Expand and contract with strong regular movements
  30. Jarring: Incongruous in a striking or shocking way; clashing
  31. Maddening: Extremely annoying; infuriating
  32. Catastrophic: Involving or causing sudden great damage or suffering
  33. Shattering: Upsetting; distressing
  34. Tormenting: Causing severe physical or mental suffering
  35. Crushing: Overwhelming and devastating
  36. Petrifying: So frightening as to cause one to be unable to move; terrifying
  37. Disorienting: Causing one to lose their sense of direction
  38. Turbulent: Characterized by conflict, disorder, or confusion; not controlled or calm
  39. Quaking: Shaking or trembling from fear or anxiety
  40. Fracturing: Breaking or causing to break
  41. Convulsing: Suffer violent involuntary contraction of the muscles, producing contortion of the body or limbs
  42. Spiraling: Constantly getting worse or more intense
  43. Crumbling: Break or fall apart into small fragments, especially as part of a process of deterioration
  44. Collapsing: Suddenly fall down or give way
  45. Suffocating: Feeling trapped and oppressed
  46. Hammering: Pounding repeatedly and relentlessly
  47. Gripping: Firmly holding the attention or interest of; exciting
  48. Looming: Appearing as a shadowy form, especially one that is large or threatening
  49. Overpowering: Too strong to be resisted or controlled.

Phrases to Describe a Panic Attack in Writing

Consider these phrases when learning how to describe a panic attack in writing:

  1. “A tsunami of fear washing over me”
  2. “A runaway train of panic, accelerating with each heartbeat”
  3. “Caught in the vice grip of terror”
  4. “An onslaught of dread, drowning all rational thought”
  5. “A vortex of fear, sucking me into its terrifying depths”
  6. “A sudden plunge into an icy ocean of panic”
  7. “An electrical storm of fear, jolting through my body”
  8. “An echo chamber of dread, amplifying each terrified thought”
  9. “A rollercoaster of terror, each second escalating the fear”
  10. “An avalanche of panic, burying me under its crushing weight”
  11. “Swept up in a whirlwind of raw, uncontrolled fear”
  12. “Feeling as if I’m free-falling through a void of panic”
  13. “A deafening alarm of terror ringing in my mind”
  14. “An erupting volcano of fear, spewing panic into every corner of my mind”
  15. “A tightening coil of dread, constricting my breath”
  16. “An untamed beast of fear, rampaging through my thoughts”
  17. “A wildfire of panic, rapidly consuming my calm”
  18. “An earthquake of terror, shaking my sense of safety”
  19. “Caught in a hurricane of fear, the eye of panic at its core”
  20. “A shadow of dread, creeping into every thought”
  21. “An explosion of panic, shattering my composure”
  22. “An icy grip of fear, freezing me in place”
  23. “A suffocating cloud of dread, filling my lungs”
  24. “A sudden lightning strike of panic, illuminating my fears”
  25. “A maze of terror, each turn leading to more panic”

Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Describing Panic Attacks

Describing panic attacks accurately and realistically can be a challenging task for many writers.

Here are some of the most common mistakes writers make:

1. Overdramatization

While panic attacks are indeed intense and terrifying, overdramatizing them can lead to a portrayal that feels unrealistic or exaggerated.

It’s crucial to remember that panic attacks, though they feel life-threatening to the person experiencing them, are not actually dangerous.

It’s really easy to go too far (less is more).

2. Ignoring the Aftermath

Many writers focus solely on the attack itself and neglect to describe the aftermath.

Panic attacks often leave individuals feeling drained, shaky, and apprehensive about future attacks.

Including these details can lend credibility to your portrayal.

3. Failing to Include Physical Symptoms

Panic attacks involve intense physical sensations, such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, and dizziness.

Some writers focus solely on the emotional experience and omit these vital details.

Combine the physical with the emotional and mental for the best results.

4. Neglecting Individual Differences

Not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way.

Some people might feel a sense of unreality or detachment, while others might be convinced they’re having a heart attack.

Remember to personalize the experience based on your character’s perspective and history.

5. Using Clichés

Phrases like “paralyzed with fear” or “heart pounding like a drum” are often clichéd and can make your writing feel less authentic.

Instead, use unique metaphors and similes to depict the character’s experience.

I’m not saying that you can never uses these common phrases – they are cliches for a reason.

However, use them sparingly and strategically.

6. Misrepresenting Triggers

There are many different things that can set off a panic attack, affecting a person’s work, relationships, and self-esteem.

However, some writers make the mistake of oversimplifying or misunderstanding these triggers.

Take time to learn and correctly “show” triggers for panic attacks.

7. Inaccurate Portrayal of Recovery

Panic attacks are typically followed by a period of intense fear about having another attack.

This anticipatory anxiety can lead to changes in behavior, such as avoiding certain places or situations.

Misrepresenting or neglecting this aspect of panic disorder can lead to an incomplete portrayal.

8. Overlooking the Impact on Daily Life

Panic attacks can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life, affecting their work, relationships, and self-esteem.

Ignoring these consequences can result in a shallow depiction of the disorder.

You want deep and guttural descriptions.

Final Thoughts: How to Describe a Panic Attack in Writing

The key to describing anything in writing is simplicity and authenticity.

Keep your words raw, vulnerable, and honest.

Related Posts:


National Institute of Health (NIH) – Research on Panic Attacks
Cleveland Clinic – Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder