Anxiety attacks are overwhelming and frightening. Learn what an anxiety attack feels like and what to do in the event that one occurs.

Although an anxiety attack is not a clinically diagnosed condition, the term is often used to describe an episode of overwhelming anxiety that can be triggered by fear or apparent threat. The term “anxiety attack” is often confused with the term “panic attack,” which is a sudden episode of extreme fear that can result in physical reactions. They are uncontrollable and disabling. The feeling can be so intense that the person experiencing it may feel like they can’t breathe or are going to die. 

What some people may label as an anxiety attack may be the manifestation of an anxiety disorder or a reaction to a current or impending circumstance that causes anxiety. Knowing how to identify and manage anxiety can help treat the condition.

Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

It is normal to feel anxious in response to certain situations or experiences. Our bodies have a natural fight-or-flight response when faced with danger or stress. Anxiety attacks go beyond feeling butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous and extend to an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

The signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack can vary from person to person but are generally experienced as both physical and psychological indicators. Many times the symptoms occur in response to a trigger that the person perceives as a threat or possible danger. Other times, the symptoms can occur spontaneously.

A person experiencing an anxiety attack could have any number of the following signs and symptoms:

Physical Symptoms

  • Rapid heart rate or pounding heart
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Choking sensation
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tension, pain or aches
  • Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
  • Sleep disturbances

Psychological Symptoms

  • Surge of overpowering panic
  • Feeling like you’re spiraling out of control
  • Irritable
  • Feeling easily frightened or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling like your mind has gone blank
  • Overwhelming fear
  • Worry and distress
  • Feeling like you need to escape 

How to Tell if Someone Is Having an Anxiety Attack

Anxiety attacks are usually overpowering and debilitating. The attack will often occur following an episode of stress or exposure to fear. The initial response will develop into an all-out panic.

The symptoms of an anxiety attack are also symptoms associated with other serious medical conditions, such as a heart attack, which may lead the person to believe something other than an anxiety attack is occurring. There are key differences between heart attacks and anxiety attacks, which can help distinguish between the two. However, only a medical test can truly diagnosis a heart attack, so it is a good idea to speak with a doctor if you are at risk of having a heart attack.

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are very similar and often have the same symptoms. If the symptoms of an anxiety attack occur out of the blue, without a specific trigger, it may be a panic attack. If this occurs more than once, the person may have an underlying panic disorder that needs to be addressed.

How to Deal With an Anxiety Attack

In the immediate moments when an attack is occurring, there are several steps a person can take to try to calm themselves down. These include:

  • Recognize an attack is occurring and trying to remember that the symptoms will pass
  • Breathe deeply to stop or calm hyperventilation and subsequently slow your heart rate
  • Relax muscles to release some of the feelings of tension from your body and help you regain control

The person experiencing the attack may feel like they are going to die and request medical assistance. Severe anxiety attacks often result in trips to the emergency room, where the person experiencing the attack can get the help they need.

In many cases, anxiety attacks occur in response to certain situations or perceived threats.  Avoiding these triggers can help reduce the chance of having an attack, but may not be feasible if the trigger is present in your everyday life. If perceived anxiety attacks are brought on by certain triggers, there may be an underlying anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed. Therapy or medications can be very helpful in dealing with an anxiety disorder.

There are things that can be done to avoid another anxiety attack. Some of them include:

  • Talking to friends or joining a support group
  • Learning to manage stress and prolonged worrying
  • Practicing meditation or relaxation techniques
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising frequently
  • Avoiding or reducing the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or smoking cigarettes, all of which have been associated with worsening anxiety  

If you are experiencing anxiety attacks or panic attacks that are frequent and debilitating, and you have turned to substances to cope, The Recovery Village can help. To learn more about treatment for anxiety and addiction, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative.

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Trisha Sippel, PhD
Dr. Sippel is a diversely trained scientist with expertise in cancer biology and immunology. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.