About Anxiety

How To Tell If You Are Having an Anxiety Attack

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How To Tell If You Are Having an Anxiety Attack

Anxiety attacks (or panic attacks), if you're going by the more technical name - are intense feelings of anxiety that are so extreme they can cause people to fear their own death.

It's not surprising that this type of event is difficult to understand for those that have never experienced it. Indeed, when most people think of anxiety, they think of being nervous, possibly shaking - it's hard for someone to picture what an anxiety attack truly is. That's why in this article, we'll describe how to tell you're having an anxiety attack and what it's like to suffer from one.

Anxiety Attacks and Severity

What makes anxiety attacks unique is that even though they are a mental health issue, it is often the physical symptoms that get the most attention, This is what those without anxiety (or those that have never had an anxiety attack) often struggle to understand. Anxiety attacks cause intense physical symptoms that mimic serious health disorders. Symptoms include:

  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lightheadedness/feeling like fainting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
  • Rapid heartbeat/heart palpitations (feeling like you're overly aware of your heart)

In many ways, anxiety attacks are similar to heart attacks. There may be other unusual issues as well, such as trouble with your vision, your teeth, your muscles, your nerves, and more. For example, some people experience weird jolts, others experience blurry vision, others experience tooth pain or hear unexplained noises.

Not all anxiety attacks are the same, but they all tend to be very physical and result in a feeling like something is terribly wrong.

What makes anxiety attacks worse is that they cause other symptoms that exacerbate the physical problems. One of the symptoms of anxiety attacks is this incredibly intense feeling of doom - as though something horrific is about to happen. That is actually a symptom of anxiety attacks, not just a response to the physical sensations, but when combined with the physical symptoms it can make a person convinced that they are about to suffer from something terrible.

Anxiety attacks also have other frightening psychological symptoms as well, such as:

  • Disaster thinking, where the person starts to uncontrollably imagine bad things happening to them, like getting hit by a car or collapsing in a public place.
  • An intense feeling of needing to run away or flee, or feeling helpless in your current situation.
  • A loss of touch with reality, called "derealization," which is when the brain shuts down your connection in reality as a coping mechanism for intense stress. (Less Common)
  • Feeling as though your brain isn't working or that a seizure is coming. Many people feel as though they are living inside of their own head, unable to escape. (Less Common)

These are just a few examples of psychological symptoms that add to the fear. They do not occur with everyone, but they create an even more disabling environment. That explains why anxiety attacks can be so severe, and so strange, to those that struggle with them.

It's actually common for those with their first anxiety attack to consider or possibly even call an ambulance. Thousands of people end up hospitalized because they are unaware that this physical attack is anxiety, only to have it calm down once they get to the hospital.

How to Tell If An Attack is Anxiety or Something Else

The biggest question people have is whether or not they suffered from an anxiety attack or something more physically serious, like a heart attack.

Unfortunately, the symptoms are so close to each other that the only way to tell is to talk to a doctor. The important thing to realize is that anxiety attacks are quite common, and heart attacks/serious health issues in those that are younger and are generally in good health are less common. There are a few differences as well:

  • Although both may cause vomiting, heart attacks are more likely to lead to vomiting.
  • Chest pains during heart attacks tend to radiate more throughout the shoulder.
  • Anxiety attacks are more likely to have a “peak” (although not always) at about 10 minutes.

It is always a good idea to speak with your doctor at least once.

What to Do About Your Anxiety Attacks

In some cases, a person has one anxiety attack and then they're done. Often this occurs when a person is under extreme stress and the body loses its ability to cope. But many people develop panic disorder, which is characterized by recurrent anxiety attacks or a fear of anxiety attacks.

Remember, this disorder isn't something someone can control. Many people think that rational thinking is all a person needs to get out of it, but anxiety attacks are much more like a disease. You need to find something effective to treat it, like cognitive behavioral therapy, rather than try to ride it out and hope that they go away.

That's why if you do feel like you've had an anxiety attack or have anxiety attack problems, it's important that you take action right away. The longer you wait, the harder they may be to cure and the more they affect your life.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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