What is a panic attack like? A conversation.

Last month my friend Sri and I had a four day break in Lisbon. We are old friends (we met in sixth form) and have not holidayed together since we were 19 (a fabulous two week adventure in Italy, as you asked).

This break had been a long time coming.

On the first night we were there I had a panic attack. A fairly impressive one.

Normally when I have a panic attack I hide, or flee the scene sharpish. And, until last month the only person who has sat with me during a panic attack is my husband.

I am not unusual. I know countless people who suffer from panic attacks. Some people suffer frequently (this is known as Panic Disorder) others only occasionally. The most recent statistic I have found about anxiety and panic sufferers in the UK reports that in 2013 there were 8 million known cases of anxiety. I am fairly sure this number has now risen significantly. Even if you don’t think you know anyone who suffers, you probably do, they just haven’t told you. Those of us who experience panic attacks become very good at hiding them from those around us.

But in Lisbon Sri experienced the ugliest side of my mental health up close and personal. I asked her to talk to me (us) about what that was like. I have written about what a panic attack is like from the inside, but I thought it might be good to hear what it is like from someone who was witnessing and supporting me, who saw it from the outside. This is not a description of what all panic attacks look like, just what mine on that day was like. This is specific and personal. But maybe if you have a friend, or partner or colleague who deals with anxiety and panic attacks regularly this might provide an insight. I hope you find our conversation helpful, hopeful and illuminating.

What follows is an extract of our conversation. Excuse the gurning (me) and wild gesticulation (Sri).

It is not always easy to share these sort of stories. I am making myself pretty vulnerable. I do it because I hope it will be of use to someone. If you know someone who might find this conversation helpful, if it will shed some light on the things we normally keep hidden, then please share this.

Dealing with anxiety and panic attacks was, until about 18 months ago, something I had to do regularly. Thankfully, in the last year and a half, I have found a way to live that means this is now a rarity. (Therapy, medication, mindfulness, exercise, lowering my expectations and pursuing things that bring me joy have all helped). If you are suffering, or know someone who is, please ask for help, go and see your GP, or contact one of the many mental health charities. The first step on the path to healing is acknowledging you are suffering and asking someone to help you.

This is just an extract of our conversation, if you want to see more, hop over to my patreon page where you can subscribe for more content and conversations. You can find my patreon page here:


Big love.

  • Wendy Kemp
    Posted at 14:17h, 21 November Reply

    Thanks for your honesty in sharing about your panic attack, and thanks to your friend for sharing her viewpoint too. So interesting to read that the best thing she could do was just sit and be with you. Sounds easy but I suspect it was actually the hardest thing to do as I think we often want to wade in and fix situations ….just sitting and being doesn’t feel proactive enough but it is good to hear that that is what you valued / helped.

    • ElliJohnson
      Posted at 14:35h, 21 November Reply

      Yes, I totally valued her giving me the space and time, not rushing me, trying to make it better quickly. X

  • Kim Murden
    Posted at 18:28h, 22 November Reply

    I found this really helpful. Especially when your friend pointed out the ways in which a panic attack is not a short sharp attack, but a longer process where a number of things are going on.

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