Panic Attacks & Chest Pains – Surviving Anxiety

Personal Stories of Overcoming Fear i-have-a-secret-panic-attacks-chest-pains

It happened again the other day, and the week before that. Crushing chest pains that cause a complete shock to my system, and pain that is almost unbearable. Panic attacks and chest pains are sudden, vicious things.

But I deal with it, because I’m used to this. Is truly amazing what human beings can get used to,  when they have to.

The first time it happened, I assumed that I had pulled a muscle while working out. I assumed the same thing over the next few episodes. But then one day when I was around 25 years old, the crushing chest pain was unbelievable. It came on quite suddenly, and felt like a 400 pound man was standing on my torso wearing giant boots.

A co-worker hustled me into a taxi to Toronto General Hospital. Over the next several hours, concerned doctors ran every imaginable test on me. I had to deal with this through hellacious pain – they could not give me any drugs because they didn’t know what the issue was.

They quickly assured me that it was not heart-related. They repeated that several times, as I come from a history of heart issues. They asserted that it was absolutely not my cardiovascular system whatsoever.

The last doctor came in to speak to me, with a slightly confused look on his face. Apparently a bunch of them had conferred about this, and the only possible answer was that the pain was due to muscle spasms, very similar to panic attacks. Some people get tension headaches, some people get air pressure headaches. Naturally, I get both of those. But I also apparently have a strange spasm across the wall of my chest, and sometimes across my back as well.

The only thing that can be done for this is to take muscle relaxants, over-the-counter painkillers, and use those stinky muscle rub creams.

Here is the wonderful little fact that makes everything worse, but then everything better. If anything happens in the area of the heart or lungs, the body panics.  It is a self-defense reaction. The heart and lungs are pretty darn important, so if they are threatened in any way, it is a freakout situation. Even though I now know that it is not life-threatening, and not heart-related, my body panics anyway.

What happens when the body panics? Things tighten up. Do you know when you really cannot have anything tightening up further? When you are experiencing a severe muscle spasm across the front of your chest wall, and across your entire back, essentially squeezing you in a giant vice of crushing pain.

I have had to learn to very carefully talk myself down from panic.

First, I pop a muscle relaxant, and use muscle cream if I have any. But the cream takes at least 5 minutes to kick in, and the pills often take at least 20 minutes on an empty stomach. So in the meantime, I have to start reducing the pain myself.

Sometimes lying flat on my back on the floor helps. Sometimes sitting cross-legged on the floor is better. I just go with my guts, and get low. I find it grounding, and it’s comforting to know that I cannot fall.

The best way to get your nervous system to chill out is to fake that you are already calm. Deep, slow breathing is the quickest way to do that. Breathe in, 2, 3… Out, 2, 3. Continually slow the pace, and deep and each breath as the muscles begin to relax. It is basically a lullaby for the parasympathetic nervous system. It takes a bit of time, but everything will chill out eventually.

Make no mistake – while in the midst of a torso seizure, this is not exactly easy. It’s really difficult to not burst into tears. It’s really difficult to stay focused, and stay on task. This has taught me a lot about how to fixated on my mission, and the power of the mind.

In order to make things better, I have to keep my concentration laser-focused on my target. I know this pain isn’t going to kill me, but the sensation is beyond extreme. It’s really more than the average person should have to handle. I am really my only line of defense against it.

One of the main things that gets me through this ordeal is that I have survived it before. No matter whether it is good or bad, once you have done something several times, you can handle it better.  I know that I will get through it, I know approximately how long it is likely to last, and I know that it will go away. Having this knowledge makes every subsequent attack a lot easier than the first few.

Why am I sharing this? To make you understand that my bizarro health issues are some of the many reasons why I am strange? (haha)  I think this is a good example of focus and determination getting us through strange life events, and how helping yourself is the best way to control panic attacks.

For those who suffer through panic attacks, I can empathize. My panic attacks have largely been loss of breath, overheating, sudden claustrophobia, etc. But some people have attacks that literally knock them on their asses.

If you are down, stay down. Stop everything, sit or lie down on the floor, and slow your breathing. No matter what is happening, 3 minutes of this will probably help your situation. If you have a buddy with you, perhaps they could sit beside you and hold your hand. Maybe they could breathe with you.

If you are alone, grab your phone first so that it is right beside you, just in case. You probably don’t need it. You will probably be fine in a few minutes. But have it there as a lifeline, and to help you settle down.

If you have ever had a panic attack before, I’m sure that you got through it somehow. It might never happen again. I sincerely hope that you have spoken to your doctor about it, so that they can give you a thorough check-up and confirm that it is a panic attack and not something else.

If you have had one panic attack, I’m sorry to say that there is a fair chance it might happen again. Take a few minutes to make a plan. What will you do the next time? What would you do if you were at work? Driving? Home alone?

Think these things through now, while your head is clear. When your brain is in a state of alarm, you might not make the clearest decisions. So plan it out now. What will you do? Who will you call? If you are driving, will you calmly pull over immediately? if you are at work, can you get to a safe, quiet place?

I should note that I use the terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” interchangeably. An anxiety attack is usually triggered by a stressful situation, so when that clears, the attack dissipates. Panic attacks can happen if triggered, or completely unprovoked.

My chest pains seem to be unprovoked, although it is often triggered by severe air pressure fluctuations, or extreme stress that happened a few days ago. Stage fright is an anxiety attack that I have also learned how to deal with.

While it is happening, however, is not the time to debate semantics. You need to get yourself somewhere safe, calm your breathing, and calm your mind. Perhaps the next day you can sit down over a cup of tea and try to figure out if there was something that brought this on.

Below is a link to free, printable panic attack plan worksheets to help you get started. Think about it, fill it out, and take it to your doctor to get their opinion.

You could stick your plan on the wall, or keep it in your purse if you think you might need to refer to it during an episode. If you were ever shaking so badly that you could not speak, you could hand it to someone so they could help you. 

Click here for a three page worksheet –
Panic Attack Plan, Processing, and Prevention

The first page is for you to fill out before you have an attack, so that you have a plan. After your next attack, fill out page two to process what happened, and how to improve your response next time. Page three is to help you start to think about overall prevention.

Bloggers are supposed to make people sign up for their email list in order to download free printables, but I would rather have this one instantly available for anyone who thinks it might be of help to them. If you would like to join the email list, thank you so much! You will be sent weekly updates of new blog posts, interesting web links, and anxiety fighting ideas. It’s easy to unsubscribe, so feel free to just to give it a test drive for a few weeks. Please check out spam folder in case the first one gets misfiled.

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Reading this article is a good step toward decreasing the frequency and severity of your panic attacks. I encourage you to do more online research, and never stop learning about how to control your wacky mind and body.

You might also be interested in a previous post:
Fear Is a Jerk. 


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