Anxiety can be normal in certain situations, such as during a difficult exam, when asking someone out for the first time or right before giving a speech. But while anxiety in certain situations is normal and to be expected for everyone, some people may experience more anxiety than most or anxiety in situations that should not normally cause anxiety.
An anxiety attack is a very common phrase used to describe an episodic exacerbation of anxiety that is not a panic attack. An anxiety attack is not the same thing as a panic attack and should not be used interchangeably. While an anxiety attack is not currently a recognized medical diagnosis, it is sometimes used to refer to any episode of heightened anxiety.
An anxiety attack can affect those with anxiety at any time, or may also affect those who have never had anxiety. Normally, however, anxiety attacks are experienced by those with anxiety during a stressful time or situation.
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What is an Anxiety Attack?
Many people who have anxiety wonder, “what is an anxiety attack?” There is no specific or technical anxiety attack definition, and the term “anxiety attack” is not recognized by the medical community. This lack of accepted definition for a term that is commonly used makes it difficult to describe exactly what an anxiety attack is.
Typically, the informally recognized definition of an anxiety attack is that it is an episode of severely increased anxiety. These attacks are more likely to happen before or during a stressful event. Anxiety attacks may be debilitating, interfering with the normal activities of life or causing impairment during a stressful situation. On the other hand, they may also be beneficial for some people, giving them increased focus and adrenaline to cope with a stressful situation.
Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks
When using terms to describe episodes of anxiety, there is a significant difference between a panic attack and anxiety attack. The main difference between an anxiety attack vs panic attack is that “anxiety attack” is not a clinically recognized term whereas “panic attack” does have a distinct medical definition.
There are strict criteria for what is considered a panic attack, and panic attacks could signal the presence of an underlying mental health condition. “Anxiety attack,” on the other hand, does not have a strict definition and can be used to describe many conditions. Some may use the term “anxiety attack” when they are actually referring to a panic attack. Others may use it to describe a time when they were moderately more anxious than normal.
Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks
Many people who think they may have had an anxiety attack will wonder, “what does an anxiety attack feel like?” Anxiety attacks symptoms are different for most people. Some people will experience symptoms that cause extreme impairment and make them unable to interact with others, while other people may be able to hide the fact that they are experiencing an anxiety attack. Signs of anxiety attack may include either physical symptoms, psychological symptoms or both.
There are emotional symptoms that will commonly be experienced during an anxiety attack. These psychological symptoms may include:
- Problems concentrating
- Feelings of dread
- Sudden forgetfulness
- Feeling extremely negative
- Feeling edgy or tense
Some people may experience other symptoms that are more severe, including suicidal thoughts. Someone who is experiencing suicidal ideation should immediately contact a doctor or call a suicide hotline to get medical help.
In addition to the psychological symptoms of an anxiety attack, physical symptoms will also likely be experienced. Some physical symptoms include:
- Fast heart rate
- Sudden need to urinate
- Dilated pupils
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Muscle tension
- Skin rashes
- Dry mouth
- Chest pain or tightness
While not everyone with anxiety will experience all, or even most, of these symptoms, at least some of these physical symptoms are likely to be experienced during an anxiety attack.
When someone believes they are having an anxiety attack, chest pain may be a common symptom. However, chest pain can also indicate other serious medical conditions, such as a heart attack. If you believe you are having an anxiety attack but also have chest pain that you have not previously experienced, you should seek medical attention to ensure you are not experiencing a heart attack.
Anatomy of an Anxiety Attack
People who struggle with anxiety attacks sometimes wonder what the stages of an anxiety attack are. Because there is no exact definition of an anxiety attack, there are no set stages that will be common to everyone experiencing one. The stages or parts of anxiety attacks that one person experiences may be completely different from the experiences of someone else.
However, there are three stages of stress response that often lead to anxiety. These three stages are:
- Alarm — The body senses danger, either from an external source like a stressful situation, or from an internal source, including thoughts that may be either conscious or subconscious. The body then releases stress hormones eliciting a “fight-or-flight” response as a result.
- Resistance — The body maintains a high state of alertness and focuses all of its energy and resources on dealing with the perceived threat.
- Exhaustion — The body recognizes that the threat is over and focuses on rebuilding energy for the next time that a threat could occur. This stage leads to tiredness and fatigue as the body recovers from the stressful event.
While these stages address the stress response and not anxiety attacks specifically, the stages of the stress response will influence how an anxiety attack develops for most people.
How Long Do Anxiety Attacks Last?
People who suffer from anxiety attacks will often wonder, “how long do anxiety attacks last?” There is no commonly accepted time or duration for anxiety attacks. Some who experience anxiety attacks will only have them for a couple minutes, while others may have anxiety attacks that last for hours or even days. Because the length of time for anxiety attacks varies for each individual, it is helpful for someone to time at least three separate anxiety episodes to get an idea of how long their personal symptoms will last.
Causes of Anxiety Attacks
People who have anxiety and are concerned about having an anxiety attack may wonder, “what causes anxiety attack?” Anxiety attack causes will vary for everyone and may occur even in those who have not previously had elevated anxiety; although those who have increased anxiety will be more prone to anxiety attacks. Anxiety attack triggers depend greatly upon the individual. For instance, a person who had a traumatic rejection the first time they asked someone out may develop an anxiety attack every time they ask someone out from that point forward. Anxiety attack triggers depend greatly upon an individual’s unique life experiences and past traumas. Anxiety attacks may also be triggered by subconscious thoughts and could appear to occur for no reason.
There are also several medical conditions that cause anxiety attacks. Not everyone with these medical conditions will necessarily develop anxiety or anxiety attacks, but they do increase the risk of anxiety attacks occurring. These conditions include:
- Tumors — especially ones that affect the brain or hormone production
- Infections — especially with Lyme disease
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Brain or spine injuries
- Hormone disorders — especially ones that affect the thyroid
- Drugs use, including caffeinated beverages, medications and recreational drugs
There are several other medical conditions that could lead to anxiety. Anyone concerned that a medical condition is leading to anxiety or anxiety attacks should contact their physician and discuss their concerns.
Coping With Anxiety Attacks
Many people who have anxiety attacks wonder how to stop an anxiety attack or how to deal with anxiety attack symptoms. Knowing how to calm an anxiety attack, including what to do when one is starting or how to avoid one starting in the first place greatly depends on understanding what works best for you individually. Because each person will have different types of anxiety attacks with different triggers, some experimentation and careful attention will be required to understand what will work for a certain individual.
There are some techniques that many people have found to be helpful for anxiety in general, and they may help individuals who are experiencing anxiety attacks. These techniques include:
- Avoid unhealthy foods
- Avoid triggers of anxiety
- Engage in exercise or physical activity
- Use herbal supplements or teas that help anxiety
- Use meditation or yoga to relax
- Try to engage in positive thinking
- Take slow, controlled, deep breaths
All of these techniques will not work for everyone, but through careful experimentation, most people will find that at least one of them will help to alleviate anxiety or symptoms that are experienced during an anxiety attack.
Treatment for Anxiety Attacks
Anxiety treatment may involve therapies or medications that provide relief. Therapies can involve learning coping techniques, learning to avoid anxiety attack producing triggers — including subconscious triggers — and developing a plan for anxiety attack relief during an episode. Anxiety attack medications are intended to provide relief by reducing the activity of neurotransmitters or receptors in the brain that promote anxiety.
Benzodiazepines are typically the most effective type of medication for treating anxiety, although beta-blockers and antihistamines are also used to treat basic anxiety. Sometimes doctors may also use antidepressants to treat anxiety disorders. Someone who needs treatment for anxiety or anxiety attacks should consult with their doctor on what types of therapies or medications could be most effective for them.
Preventing Anxiety Attacks
The first step in learning how to prevent anxiety attacks is understanding what causes them. This will involve learning situations or people that trigger anxiety attacks. Learning to avoid triggers will be a key factor in preventing future episodes, but sometimes one may start anyways. This is when coping techniques and other ways of managing anxiety will be necessary. Someone who struggles to find out what triggers anxiety attacks or how to manage their anxiety attacks should seek professional help. Trained professionals can help those with anxiety to better understand the causes of their anxiety attacks and how to best treat them.
If you or someone you know is using substances to cope with anxiety attacks or other mental health conditions, treatment may help. Contact The Recovery Village to learn about treatment options for co-occurring addiction and mental health.
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HelpGuide. “Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks.” May 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Davis, Kathleen. “How to Recognize an Anxiety Attack.” Medical News Today. Nov. 5, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Gluck, Samantha. “What Is an Anxiety Attack? Anxiety Attack Symptoms.” HealthyPlace. May 15, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Cain, Robert. “Is a Hidden Medical Condition Causing Your Anxiety?” Cleveland Clinic. June 22, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Shaikh, Faiq. “How To Deal & Cope With Anxiety.” CalmClinic. Oct. 24, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.