What Causes Anxiety Attacks?

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All of us experience anxiety from time to time. Sometimes the anxiety can seem to come on suddenly or feel all-encompassing. This is what is usually referred to as an anxiety attack. If you’ve ever had an anxiety attack, you know how challenging it can be.

The experience may be disorienting and bewildering to you. “Why is this happening?”, you might think. You may wonder what is causing your anxiety to feel so out of control. This is totally understandable, and it can be helpful to understand the cause of anxiety attacks—doing so is often the first step to getting some relief.

Let’s take a look at the causes and risk factors of anxiety attacks, and what you can do to feel more like yourself again.

What Are Anxiety Attacks?

“Anxiety attack” is not an official diagnosis. Unlike anxiety disorders like panic disorder and PTSD, anxiety attacks are not listed in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

“Anxiety attacks” is more of a colloquial term used to describe a concentrated moment of anxiety, or a more sudden attack of anxiety symptoms.

Most people do not associate anxiety attacks with life threatening circumstances or specific phobias. Anxiety attacks may involve powerful feelings of fear and stress, but they are not usually linked to depression or other mental health disorders.

Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks

Anxiety attacks share many of the same symptoms as a panic attack, including rapid heartbeat, sweating, and racing thoughts. Anxiety attacks are usually slightly less severe than a panic attack, and may not involve a specific trigger or phobia. Anxiety attacks usually also don’t involve fear of the specific place where the attack took place, as panic attacks often do.

To be diagnosed with panic disorder, physical ailments like thyroid and respiratory issues need to be ruled out. You usually have to have had multiple panic attacks, and the panic attacks have to had impacted your quality of life and ability to function well.

How Can You Tell That You’re Having An Anxiety Attack?

Sometimes anxiety attacks come on slowly, over the course of a few days. Other times, they seem to come on suddenly, as if out of the blue. Both types of experiences are common. Anxiety attacks aren’t just emotional or mental: they often involve some telltale physical symptoms as well.

Here are some common signs and symptoms of anxiety attacks:

What Are the Causes of an Anxiety Attack?

It can be helpful to understand what is causing your anxiety to spike, because once you know what’s causing an anxiety attack, you can work on addressing that, in the hope that it will stop you from continuing to have anxiety attacks.

Usually anxiety attacks have more than one cause—often, several factors are at play at once. For example, an anxiety attack might come on when you haven’t slept well for a few nights in a row, you’ve drunk more caffeine than usual, and your workload has piled up at the same time.

In other words, often anxiety attacks come on because of a “perfect storm” of unfortunate circumstances.

Often, certain situations in life and life stressors are a cause of anxiety attacks. These may include:

  • Financial stress
  • Job or relationship stress
  • Stress about world events
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Excessive caffeine consumption
  • Social anxiety
  • An upsetting health diagnosis
  • Life transitions and identity crises

Additionally, certain people seem to have an increased propensity toward anxiety and anxiety attacks. Some factors that may make you more susceptible include:

  • Genetics, as anxiety tends to run in families
  • Chemical imbalances, ongoing stress can change our hormonal and neurological make-up
  • A history of trauma, or PTSD

Finally, there are certain risk factors that may make you more likely to experience an anxiety attack at some point in your life:

  • Having a shy or tentative personality
  • Having a history of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders like PTSD, generalized anxiety, social anxiety
  • Adversity or traumatic experiences, especially in childhood
  • Having certain health conditions, including thyroid imbalances or heart issues
  • Consuming substances that increase anxiety, such as caffeine or medications that have anxiety symptoms as side effects

How Do You Treat Anxiety Attacks?

If you’ve had an anxiety attack, and especially if it becomes a recurring issue, it’s a good idea to visit your healthcare provider to rule out any serious medical issues that may be causing your symptoms. Your provider can also help you to understand what may be causing your anxiety attacks, and to refer you to a mental health professional if needed.

Just as anxiety attacks may have more than one cause, easing anxiety symptoms usually takes a multifaceted approach. Here are a few areas you may choose to focus on. 

Therapy

Speaking to a therapist is one of the best ways to understand what is causing anxiety attacks. Your therapist can help you consider what types of situations trigger your anxiety, and can help you come up with effective methods for managing anxiety. The types of therapy best known to help with anxiety attacks include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

Medication

Sometimes it makes sense to consider medication—either on a short-term or longer term basis—to help manage your anxiety. You will need to seek help from an MD or psychiatrist for this, as psychotherapists can’t prescribe medication.

Common medications used to treat anxiety include antidepressants, fast acting anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers.

Meditation

A meta-analysis published in Depression & Anxiety found that meditation can have positive impacts on reducing anxiety symptoms. If you have never meditated and aren’t sure where to start, you might want to consider downloading a guided meditation app to get started. Try not to overthink meditation: just spending a few minutes a day with your eyes closed sitting or lying still can work wonders.

Lifestyle Changes

We can’t control every aspect of our lives, including the things that trigger anxiety, like conflicts at work or in relationships. But there are certain things we can control. Making tweaks to our lifestyle can help us manage anxiety and decrease anxiety attacks. For example:

  • Consider decreasing your caffeine intake
  • Practice good sleep hygiene so you get enough sleep each night
  • Get fresh air each day and try to fit in some movement or exercise on a regular basis
  • Share your feelings with trusted loved ones as it’s not healthy to keep difficult feelings bottled up inside
  • Decrease screen time, especially “doomscrolling” about current events
  • Add “self-care” into your routine, whatever that means to you—whether it’s taking a hot bath a few times a week, making time to read a novel, or spending time with good friends

A Word From Verywell

Anxiety attacks are common, and understanding what causes them can empower you to make changes in your life to decrease their recurrence, or seek the help you need to feel better. However, sometimes anxiety attacks are more debilitating, or indicate something more serious. If you are having severe physical symptoms, such as symptoms of a heart attack, or if your anxiety attacks are preventing you from functioning on a day-to-day basis, please get in touch with your healthcare provider.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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