About Anxiety
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Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Medically reviewed by
Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

Day to day anxiety can be hard to cope with. Every day you experience nervousness, tension, and a variety of symptoms that disrupt your day and damage your mood. Persistent, chronic anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the world and one that many people are forced to manage.

But many people experience something much worse - an anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks are severe, intense feelings of anxiety that cause a host of symptoms that in some people are so disabling, they can actually cause hospitalization.

What is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attacks are a combination of physical and mental symptoms that are intense and overwhelming. The anxiety is more than just regular nervousness. The anxiety is often a feeling of immense, impending doom that makes many people feel they're about to die, or that everything around them is breaking down.

It creates physical symptoms that are so severe they actually mimic legitimate, serious health problems.

Those that haven't had an anxiety attack before often have no idea that what they're experiencing is anxiety. That's because the symptoms of anxiety attacks and panic attacks mimic extremely serious issues, such as:

Yet despite how intense these things can feel, anxiety attacks are not even remotely dangerous.

Cause of Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks are usually – although not always – caused by severe stress. The symptoms depend on the type of attack. The term anxiety attack is sometimes used interchangeably with the term panic attack, but may also refer to any periods of extreme anxiety beyond what a person normally experiences.

Panic Attacks

When someone says “anxiety attack” in place of the term “panic attack,” what they mean is that they are struggling with severe physical and emotional anxiety symptoms, including rapid heartbeat, trouble breathing, lightheadedness, feelings of doom, chest pains, and other anxiety symptoms.

The cause of these symptoms is a combination of two things:

Anxiety increases adrenaline/epinephrine production in the body, which speeds up your heartbeat, makes you sweat, causes you to breathe faster, and makes you more aware of your body.

These reactions are designed to keep you safe from harm. If you were faced with real danger, like someone chasing you with a knife, the adrenaline helps you react faster, run away more quickly, stay aware of your surroundings, etc. But some people experience them when no real danger is present. This is what creates the sensation of an anxiety attack.

In addition, anxiety can cause you to alter your breathing in a way that creates hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is when you breathe in more oxygen than you need, and breath out the CO2. Hyperventilation also causes a “paradoxical effect” which makes it feel like you’re not getting enough air, which then causes you to try to breathe in even more oxygen than you need and makes the attack worse.

Hyperventilation is the cause of some of the more severe anxiety attack symptoms, such as feelings of feint, rapid thinking, chest pain, and other physical symptoms.

The Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack

Once again, “anxiety attack” is not a clinical term. It's a term used to describe periods of more intense anxiety that go beyond traditional anxiety experiences.

That differs from the term panic attack. Panic attacks are severe anxiety attacks like what is described above - attacks that are often so disabling that many people struggle to cope with them and develop panic disorder, health anxiety, and possibly agoraphobia.

Traditionally, the term "anxiety attack" is used to discuss weaker versions of panic attacks. If you have multiple panic attacks, you have panic disorder. Anxiety attacks can affect anyone - even those without panic disorder or an anxiety disorder - and so the term is used to encompass all of these types of attacks.

For the purposes of this article, we'll discuss these types of anxiety attacks as the weaker version of a panic attack. But in life, people do use the two terms somewhat interchangeably, and both are related to the same feelings of doom, along with relevant symptoms.

Non-Panic Anxiety Attacks

For those that use the term “anxiety attack” more casually to refer to severe anxiety, what they’re usually referring to is a feeling of being overwhelmed by anxiety and stress that is difficult to control. Usually, the cause is related to life stress. The anxiety attack is caused by significant stress going on in the individual’s life at that very moment.

In some cases, anxiety attacks may also be used to describe any severe version of an anxiety disorder. For example, if you suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, an anxiety attack would be any time that the anxiety temporarily becomes so pronounced that the obsessions and compulsions appear to be impossible to stop. Or if you have social phobia, and your anxiety attack forces you to leave all social situations shaking.

These types of anxiety attacks are not necessarily "attacks" so much as exacerbated versions of already occurring anxiety disorders. The experience may be like so:

Phobias and fears can also cause anxiety attacks as well. Those who are afraid of flying, for example, may experience anxiety so severe when they get on a plane that they have trouble breathing and feel like they can’t control their anxiety symptoms.

Still, because “anxiety attack” is not a medical term, there are many other ways to experience anxiety attacks as well. The only thing they have in common is that the symptoms – whether they are physical, mental, or emotional – feel overwhelming, and often hit the person very hard.

How to Tell if You're Having an Anxiety Attack

If you feel like you had severe anxiety, then you had an anxiety attack. Any form of severe anxiety can count as an attack. But for those that are experiencing something more like panic attacks, the experience tends to be similar between different people.

Recall that anxiety attacks can mimic other health problems. If you haven't been to a doctor, it's a good idea to go at least once to rule out any more serious issues. Make sure your doctor knows about anxiety, however. Not all doctors are aware of the severity of anxiety attack symptoms. Some may not believe that anxiety can cause so many physical symptoms and sensations, but it absolutely can. That’s why it’s so important to find the right doctor.

The symptoms below are often experienced differently by different people. During an anxiety attack, your body experiences a wave of stress that is so profound, it's difficult to know exactly how your individual body will react. Yet below are some of the most common symptoms of an anxiety attack:

You may not experience all of these symptoms at once either, and each one may cause various degrees of severity. You may also feel as though there is no way that it is an anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are often so severe that the sufferers live in constant fear of the symptoms coming back.

Anxiety attacks also tend to peak around 10 minutes (though because anxiety attacks are not as severe as panic attacks, they may peak differently). Then as they dissipate, they often leave you feeling fatigued and drained, possibly fearful of another attack.

What Does Anxiety Attack Mean

Anxiety attacks often have triggers, although they can be triggered by nothing at all. Some people experience anxiety attacks during periods of intense anxiety, but many others experience them "out of nowhere," usually as a response to a physical sensation. For example, it's not uncommon to have your first anxiety attack simply because your heartbeat speeds up, because anxiety has caused you to be hypersensitive to these changes.

The causes of anxiety attacks are everything from severe stress to hyperventilation to a need to regain control. It differs for different people, which is why treating it has a great deal to do with identifying triggers. Once you've experienced an anxiety attack, the fear of another anxiety attack may actually trigger an attack, because those that are afraid of getting a panic attack again often pay too much attention to their own body, and react to any changes in sensations.

What to Do When You Have An Anxiety Attack

Anxiety attacks often need to run their course. Once they've started, there is very little that you can do to stop them completely. They're a reaction that your body has that is somewhat beyond your control. They can be prevented, and their severity can be lessened, but they are very hard to stop.

Reducing its severity has to do with reacting correctly to the symptoms. Remember - the physical symptoms you experience are very real, and very disruptive. But they're not related to any health problem, and solely a result of your anxiety. If you believe you feel an anxiety attack coming or you're certain you're in the middle of the one, try the following:

Drinking water may also calm the mind, and if you feel strong enough, a good jog can get your body to breathe better and use oxygen at a healthier pace.

Preventing Anxiety Attacks

Remember that one of the key issues with anxiety attacks is that once they start, they tend to trigger a cascade of reactions that are nearly impossible to stop. What you can do, however, is prevent your anxiety attacks from coming back.

Prevention is a slow process. It starts by going to the doctor - for your own mental health, you do need to make sure that you've ruled out any of your health concerns. Anxiety attacks tend to create serious health anxiety, and health anxiety is not something that can easily be stopped if you don't at least go in for your annual checkup.

Afterward, the key is to learn how to react to your symptoms. Often you'll find that the following are the reasons that you start to deal with more anxiety attacks:

All of these need to be addressed to control your anxiety forever.

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