Anxiety attacks - or panic attacks, if you're going by their 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.
Is It An Anxiety Attack?
We have developed this a free 7 minute anxiety test that will let you know what kind of anxiety you may be suffering from, how intense it is, and what you can do to treat it. I highly recommend it for anyone curious about their anxiety or anxiety attacks.
Anxiety Attacks and Severity
Anxiety attacks are extremely intense psychological events. The best way to get a better idea of whether or not you have anxiety and what you can do about it is by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test.
What makes anxiety attacks unique is that they're more physical than they are mental, and 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 very 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 extremely 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. 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)
- Feelings 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 - anyone may have their own psychological symptoms, but they create an even more disabling environment that explains why anxiety attacks can be so severe - and so strange to people.
It's actually very 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 very common, and heart attacks/serious health issues in those that are generally in good health are much less common. There are a few differences as well:
- Heart attacks may involve vomiting (though panic attacks can cause nausea)
- Chest pains during heart attacks tend to radiate more throughout the shoulder.
- Anxiety attacks tend to peak 10 minutes in. Heart attacks peak right away.
But even these parameters aren't exact. The best thing to do is talk to your doctor. If your heart checks out, chances are the issue is anxiety.
(Note: Many people with anxiety attacks tend to develop health anxiety. Even when a doctor rules out a health condition, it's not uncommon to worry they missed something or that it is some other condition. This is also the result of anxiety.)
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 - without the right help, they're uncontrollable, because the thought processes you have are caused by the rush of anxiety.
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.
I've helped many people overcome their anxiety attacks. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test is a valuable tool for learning more about your anxiety and what you can do to stop it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.