How to Write a Panic Attack in Your Fiction

How to Write a Panic Attack in Your Fiction

The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.


There are a number of ways you can put your reader into the mindset of the character experiencing a stressful event or situation. In order to build a believable reaction, researching how a person may respond can reveal the depths of a flight or fight response; it may even result in a panic attack. 


Whether you’re writing a character that has a mental health condition like a panic disorder or anxiety, or there’s a stressful situation you’re adding to the scene, a panic attack can build suspense. Panic attacks are the body’s involuntary response to fear and distress, but the symptoms can vary per person. The common symptoms are nausea, dizziness, and trouble breathing, and the triggers can also differ for each individual based on past trauma, high levels of stress, or even discomfort. When writing a panic attack, it’s important to know how to express the situation to your audience through the character and those around them. 

The Physical Reaction

One of the first ways to describe a panic attack is to depict what the character is going through physically. In some cases, this may even be the first sign that they’re beginning to experience panic, especially if the individual isn’t used to having them. As mentioned earlier, every panic attack can be different, especially from person to person, but there are some similar symptoms: 


  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating or uncomfortable body temperatures


A panic attack is a stress response and the body goes into self-preservation mode in order to prepare a person to act on their fears. This is why it’s commonly called a “fight or flight” response because your body’s reaction is to either defend yourself or get out of the situation as quickly as possible. 

The Emotional Reaction

Building up a panic attack in your fiction isn’t just about creating a realistic viewpoint of the character’s bodily functions. While you can get into the details of the sweat breaking out across their upper lip, their heart-pounding faster in their chest, and their eyesight becoming fuzzy and distorted, this is only half of a panic attack. The “panic” is also their emotional response. 


Regardless of whether the situation is coming from an intense bank robbery or a stressful conversation with a peer, your character is going to be feeling an increase in discomfort, fear, and distress. Depending on your character’s personality, you need to articulate how they react to these sudden emotions. Consider how the increased heart rate and difficulty breathing may make them respond or react to others around them. If they’re alone, talk about their thought process and how the growing unease is affecting their train of thought. A panic attack can be an intense mental struggle some people may try to hide while others don’t know how to control their reactions. Take a moment to consider how your character reacts to stressful situations and then raise the metaphorical stakes. 

The Reaction of Others

Finally, you need to take into account the reactions of those around them if they’re with anyone at the time. Not all panic attack symptoms are obvious, but there may be signs that other characters recognize, pick up on, or point out to the character experiencing the panic attack. What can help to strengthen a scene is the interaction of characters and their response to the stress of others. For example, if your main character is reacting to another individual going through a panic attack and they’re unfamiliar with the situation, it may also cause them to panic, building up the stress and intensity of the scene. 


It’s important to remember that when depicting mental health conditions, negative stereotypes and stigmas need to be avoided. A character isn’t necessarily “weak-willed” because of a panic attack and showing these stress reactions isn’t necessarily going to downplay the strength of your character. Instead, research symptoms, treatments, and ways to help a person having a triggering moment in order to help you build realistic and honest situations. 

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