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:
- Heart attacks and heart failure.
- Brain tumors.
- Multiple sclerosis.
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.
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:
- the effects of anxiety
- the effects of hyperventilation
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:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Someone with GAD that has an anxiety attack is likely to feel as though their anxiety has become unmanageable. They may feel severely worried that something is or will go wrong, or their physical or mental symptoms feel so pronounced that they are unable to control it. Often an anxiety attack for someone with generalized anxiety disorder is more of an emotional breaking point, rather than a specific feeling of anxiety symptoms (although this may not be the case for everyone).
- Panic Disorder – Since the term panic attack and anxiety attack are used interchangeably, an anxiety attack when you have panic disorder is simply a panic attack. There is usually a feeling that something terrible is happening or is about to happen. It can feel hard to breathe like you can’t get air. You may feel light-headed, experience chest pains, and have an awareness that your heartbeat is speeding up. For more information about panic attack symptoms, consider viewing our panic attack specific page.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – An anxiety attack with PTSD can be serious. These attacks may trigger anxiety as if you are in the moment of your trauma. For veterans with PTSD, they may feel the severe anxiety that occurred when they were in the battlefield. For assault victims, they may relieve the event that’s occurring. Their anxiety responses mimic the stress and anxiety they felt when the event occurred.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – Anxiety attacks with OCD tend to be more common when the compulsion did not take place. Like with generalized anxiety disorder, the experience feels more like an overwhelming emotional break rather than specific symptoms. In some cases, the response may be more pronounced compulsions, although this is not true for everyone.
- Social Anxiety Disorder – Those with social anxiety disorder may have anxiety attacks when their shyness and discomfort in social situations cause them to panic, almost as though they have come face to face with their worst fear. The symptoms may also resemble a panic attack in their severity, but for some it is just an overwhelming feeling of the need to escape.
- Stress Related Anxiety Attacks – Not all anxiety attacks occur with those who have anxiety disorders. Those under severe stress or anxiety may have the panic like anxiety attacks that are similar or identical to those that have panic disorder. The only difference between them is that they tend to have a bit more of a mental component. Those with panic attacks can have the attacks even when they do not think they’re stressed. Those that are under severe stress usually have their anxiety attacks triggered by emotional events.
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:
- Rapid, pounding heartbeat.
- Feeling of your heart being squeezed or pressured.
- Chest pains, often sharp pains in the center of the chest.
- Intense sweating with possible hot/cold sensations.
- Lightheadedness, possibly with confusion.
- Feeling as though you cannot get a deep breath.
- Weakness, tingling, or numbness in the arms and legs.
- Dizziness, possibly along with feeling faint.
- Burning sensations that travel through the skin and muscles.
- Intense feeling of doom - as though something terrible is about to happen.
- Trouble concentrating or focusing on anything other than your symptoms.
- The impulse of feeling like you need to escape, or you need a doctor.
- Trouble listening/hearing, sometimes while feeling as though your ears are plugged.
- Overwhelming fear - a level of anxiety that can convince you of something terrible.
- Depersonalization, also known as feeling as though you're watching yourself.
- Feelings of going crazy or that your mind is failing you.
- Nausea and stomach discomfort, possibly with pain.
- Head pressure as though your head is being squeezed.
- Pressing need to urinate or defecate.
- Trouble holding your head up.
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:
- Don't Try to Fight it Completely Anxiety attacks can be prevented, but stopping them is extremely difficult. If you try to fight it and try to force yourself to not experience a rush of anxiety, you'll often find that you're making your symptoms worse.
- Distract Yourself You can lessen the severity of the symptoms by finding some type of distraction. The severity of an anxiety attack is often related to how focused you are on the experience. If you can distract yourself, it will often be slightly weaker. If possible, call someone on a cell phone, turn on the TV, or walk around. All of these provide some level of distraction that can be useful for reducing its severity.
- Control Breathing One of the most common symptoms of an anxiety attack is the feeling that you cannot get a full breath. Often you react by trying to breathe deeper or yawn. But the reality is that shortness of breath feeling is often caused by breathing in too much oxygen, not too little. Even though it feels like you cannot get a deep breath, it's likely you have breathed in such a way that your carbon dioxide levels are actually too low. Take slower breaths, and hold your breath for a second or two before slowly exhaling to regain the right oxygen/CO2 balance.
- Don't Hold it In If you have someone around you that you care about, consider telling them you're having an anxiety attack and explaining to them what you feel. Many of the worst panic attacks occur when someone is trying to deal with them on their own in the company of someone else. They stay inside their own mind and end up making the anxiety attack worse.
- Face Your Fears It may sound counterintuitive, but if you seem to get anxiety attacks in specific situations or places, go back to them on purpose. Anxiety attacks are often fueled by reinforcement. When you stay away from a place that gives you anxiety attacks, it reinforces the idea that you have something to fear, and you're more likely to get an attack again somewhere else. Avoiding every place that causes an attack is one of the reasons many people with persistent panic attacks develop agoraphobia - or the fear of going outdoors.
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:
- You're responding to sensations in your body with severe anxiety.
- You're breathing poorly and/or thinking too much about your breathing/health.
- You're experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety naturally, causing a higher stress baseline.
All of these need to be addressed to control your anxiety forever.