What Is an Anxiety Attack?

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What Is an Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack is a sudden and intense episode of fear and anxiety. These anxiety attacks can sometimes occur unexpectedly for no apparent reason, but they can also be linked to specific triggers. 

“Anxiety attack” is not a formal, clinical term. Instead, it is a term often used colloquially by many people to describe all sorts of anxious responses. People may use it to describe a range of sensations, from worries about an upcoming event to intense feelings of fear that would meet the diagnostic criteria for a panic attack. In order to understand what someone means by “anxiety attack,” it is necessary to consider the context in which the symptoms occur.

Symptoms

Symptoms of an anxiety attack can vary. Some people may only experience a few mild symptoms of anxiety, while others may experience a wider variety of more intense symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Apprehension
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dry mouth
  • Irritability
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headache
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in the chest and throat
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Worry

Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack

Have you ever experienced an intense feeling of terror, fear, or apprehension for no apparent reason? If so, you may have experienced a panic attack.

If you experience recurrent panic attacks, you may have a condition known as panic disorder. Panic attacks can also be a sign of other underlying medical or mental health conditions, including sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or depression.

Panic attacks can be confusing and scary for the person experiencing them, in that they are usually sudden and are accompanied by extremely intense physical sensations. This can lead a person to believe they may have a serious medical condition.

Because panic attack symptoms do overlap with symptoms of certain serious conditions, it is important to rule out any medical causes.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or of being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking

Diagnosis

If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, your first step may be to talk to your doctor. Your doctor will perform a physical exam and may conduct lab tests to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing or contributing to your symptoms. If no medical cause is found, your doctor may then refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation.

Because an anxiety attack is not a formal diagnosis, you may be diagnosed with a type of anxiety disorder such as panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, depending on your symptoms. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms in order to determine a diagnosis based on criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Experts now recommend that all women over the age of 13 should be screened for anxiety, but always talk to your doctor if you are concerned about symptoms you are experiencing.

Causes

The exact causes of anxiety are not known, but it is likely that a variety of factors play a role. An anxiety attack can be triggered by anxiety disorders, perceived threats, or certain situations.

Anxiety Disorders

Certain anxiety disorders can cause what people might describe as an "anxiety attack." Each of these has a specific set of symptoms. These conditions can also have different causes or can be triggered by certain situations.

Perceived Threats

Anxiety can be a response to an imprecise or unknown threat. For example, imagine you’re walking alone down a dark street. You may feel a little uneasy, and perhaps you have a few butterflies in your stomach. This type of "anxiety attack" is related to the possibility that there might be a danger that poses you harm.

This anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from your mind’s vision of the possible dangers that may result in the situation. The symptoms you are experiencing are normal and even beneficial.

Anticipating threats allows your body to prepare to respond to a situation quickly—a phenomenon known as the fight-or-flight response.

Specific Situations

Sometimes, what people call "anxiety attacks" are actually normal reactions to life experiences that make us anxious. These experiences can include things such as:

  • Becoming a parent
  • Changing jobs
  • Coping with illness
  • Financial worries
  • Death of a loved one
  • Getting divorced
  • Getting married
  • Parenting and family pressures
  • Public speaking
  • Relationship conflict
  • Taking a school exam
  • Work-related stress

Such situations can cause feelings that can range from normal anxiety (which may often be beneficial) to an anxiety attack. This anxiety might be temporary, but it can still be upsetting and can interfere with your ability to perform in certain situations (such as giving a speech). If situational anxiety attacks make it difficult to cope, seeking treatment can be helpful

Other factors that can contribute to anxiety attack symptoms include genetics, chronic stress, drug and alcohol use, brain changes, certain medications, and traumatic events. Excessive caffeine consumption can also trigger an anxiety attack.

Treatment

Effective anxiety treatments are available. These treatments can be used to treat a diagnosed anxiety disorder, but they can also be helpful for reducing general feelings of anxiety as well.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy focuses on changing the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors associated with anxiety. There are many different types of psychotherapy, but two that are frequently used are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach that involves identifying the automatic negative thought patterns that are associated with feelings of anxiety. Once these have been identified, people then learn to actively challenge such thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones.
  • Exposure therapy is an approach that can be effective when treating certain types of anxiety, particularly specific phobias. People are gradually exposed to a feared object or situation while then practicing relaxation techniques. Eventually, the source of their fear becomes less frightening.

Medications

Some medications can be useful for treating symptoms of anxiety. These include:

Coping

If you are experiencing anxiety attacks, various coping strategies and lifestyle modifications may also help. These include:

  • Adequate sleep: Sleep can have a major impact on your mental well-being, and lack of sleep can sometimes play a role in worsening feelings of anxiety.
  • Deep breathing: Shallow breathing during an anxiety attack can increase heart rate and make it more difficult to remain calm. Practice deep breathing techniques to help keep your breathing and heart rate under control when you are coping with feelings of stress and anxiety.
  • Meditation: Meditation can be a great way to practice focusing on your breathing and staying centered in the moment. Meditative techniques have also been shown to have some usefulness for reducing symptoms of anxiety. Start by practicing for 10 minutes a day. If you need help, consider trying a guided audio meditation or a mobile meditation app.
  • Regular exercise: Exercise has long been known to have both physical and mental health benefits. Research has also found that exercise can be an effective option for reducing symptoms of anxiety. 
  • Support: Social support can play a critical role in mental health and well-being. Anxiety can often be an isolating experience, so seeking the support of friends and family can be helpful. Another idea is to join an anxiety support group.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety or panic attacks, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

A person may experience a panic attack once or even a few times during their lives and may never develop an anxiety disorder. Since the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks may mimic many other medical and psychological disorders, however, it is important to review your symptoms with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Anxiety attacks can be frightening, but it is important to remember that they are often normal reactions to difficult situations. If your symptoms of anxiety are frequent or are making it difficult to function normally, talk to your doctor. Effective treatments are available and there are also many self-help strategies that you might find helpful.

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Article Sources
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