Inside a panic attack

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Zack DiGregorio

Zack DiGregorio had his first panic attack at age 17. (Eduard Saakashvili/WHYY)

When Zack DiGregorio walked into his Advanced Placement statistics class, he expected to be uncomfortable. He disliked the class, and the girl who sat next to him smelled strongly of cigarettes. But when he sat down and class began, the level of discomfort he felt was more than he anticipated.

His breath quickened, sweat appeared on his skin, and his eyes darted from object to object, never settling.

“I just felt like I needed to leave immediately,” he remembers. The world fell away, and all he could think of was his immediate goal: getting to the bathroom. Later, he would learn to call this experience what it was — a panic attack.

DiGregorio was experiencing a “fight or flight” response designed to get us out of danger.

The way psychologist Thea Gallagher likes to explain it, a panic attack is like a fire alarm. Every time it goes off, our entire body and mind act as if there is an actual life-threatening house fire … even if we’ve only burned some toast in the toaster oven.

During a panic attack, stress hormones like adrenaline travel around the body and “tell” key organs to freak out.

As DiGregorio fled his class and made a beeline for the bathroom, he felt symptoms that made little sense to him, but that are perfectly reasonable when escaping a predator. His sweat made his skin more slippery and harder to grasp. His fingers and lips started to feel tingly as blood rushed away from his extremities and toward important muscles instead.

In the bathroom, DiGregorio began to take stock of himself. And the irony of his panic attack became apparent: his symptoms were supposed to save him from an external threat, but during a panic attack, Gallagher explained, “the only danger is what’s happening inside of you.”

DiGregorio started to hyperventilate. It was a vicious cycle.

“Trying to take a full breath and then not having enough oxygen,” DiGregorio said, “kind of makes you panic more.”

“The fear becomes the fear,” Gallagher said.

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