What Is an Anxiety Attack?

These episodes can be linked to stressful triggers

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An anxiety attack is an episode of extreme and excessive worry, discomfort, or fear accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms. Symptoms of an anxiety attack include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, uncontrollable thoughts, feelings of panic, and more.

If you've ever experienced an anxiety attack, you know how scary they can be. It's frightening to feel unable to control your own body and mind. That's why it's important to seek treatment for anxiety attacks, especially if they're interfering with your daily life.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell

Definition

While there is no categorical diagnosis of anxiety attack, it is commonly understood as a sudden and intense attack of fear and anxiety. This anxiety is often a reaction to a self-perceived threat, and may not be related to an actual dangerous or life-threatening situation.

An anxiety attack might last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer. Some people might recognize triggers for their anxiety attacks, while for others an anxiety attack can seemingly come out of nowhere.

It is somewhat difficult to define an anxiety attack because this term is often used interchangeably with other terms like "panic attack" and "acute anxiety." "Anxiety attack" is not actually a clinical term, and it is not included in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5). Therefore, there is a spectrum of experiences that people might have and define as an anxiety attack.

Fight or Flight Response

Anxiety is linked to the body's fight or flight response. This is an evolutionary stress response to life-threatening situations. There is a physiological response of the sympathetic nervous system, including a rush of stress hormones, that prepares the body for the threat.

In some people, this stress response is over-reactive, and non-threatening triggers like a work presentation, a haunted house, or even something so small it's hard to identify, can lead to what we experience as "anxiety attacks."

Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack

Unlike anxiety attacks, the term panic attack is recognized in the DSM-5. A panic attack is not a diagnosable condition on its own, but is a central symptom in panic disorder, as well as other anxiety disorders. According to the DSM-5, a panic attack can be expected or unexpected.

There is no hard-and-fast rule about what differentiates an anxiety attack from a panic attack. However, you might think of an anxiety attack as something broader in nature.

Anxiety attacks can be mild or moderate, as well as severe, and can encompass any of the symptoms of anxiety. Contrastingly, all panic attacks are disruptive and severe, in order to meet the symptoms of a panic attack as defined in the DSM-5.

Symptoms

Anxiety attack symptoms can vary from person to person, and situation to situation. Because "anxiety attack" is not a clinical term, there is a gray area in how people experience it, and how they describe their symptoms.

Symptoms of an anxiety attack can include:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are experiencing anxiety attacks that are interfering with your daily life, or leading you to avoid previously enjoyed activities, please talk to your healthcare provider.

You can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Causes

There is no singular cause of anxiety attacks. Anxiety attacks are a symptom of many mental health conditions. They can also be caused by specific stressful life situations or individual triggers.

Situations

Any number of situations could trigger an anxiety attack. For many people, an already stressful life situation may boil over into an anxiety attack. These situations could include:

  • Divorce
  • Unemployment
  • Work-related stress
  • Caregiving duties
  • Grief or loss of a loved one
  • Financial stress
  • Performances or presentations
  • Exams
  • Driving in heavy traffic
  • Global pandemic

Remember that anxiety, as an emotion, is a totally normal part of life. Major life changes can be anxiety inducing, but a healthy level of anxiety can keep you alert and focused. However, if your day-to-day worries become an anxiety attack, with acute symptoms, this can be incredibly distressing.

A 2017 study found that people who experience panic attacks are hypersensitive to unpredictable stimuli. Therefore unpredictable, shocking situations might trigger anxiety attacks for some people. These situations might include being spooked at a haunted house, being bitten by a cat, missing a step on the stairs, or any other shocking situation.

Mental Health Conditions

Anxiety attacks can also be a symptom of certain broader mental health diagnoses. In particular, anxiety and panic attacks are a feature of many anxiety and related disorders, including:

  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Specific phobias
  • Agoraphobia

Self Care

You might feel out of control while having an anxiety attack, but there are ways to take back control. Through self care, you can reduce your stress, lessen the severity of anxiety attacks, and even prevent future anxiety attacks.

Some self care strategies to help with anxiety attacks include:

  • Regular aerobic exercise
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Practicing meditation and mindfulness
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Social support
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing
  • Mantras
  • Positive visualization
  • Eating a Mediterranean diet

Treatment

It is very important to seek treatment for anxiety attacks. Not only can ongoing anxiety attacks lead to avoidance of previously enjoyed activities or situations, but research also indicates that anxiety attacks lead to an increased risk of suicide attempt.

Thankfully, there are many effective and accessible anxiety treatments. While most of these treatments are designed for anxiety disorders, they will also be relevant and useful to people who experience anxiety attacks. This is because, for some people, anxiety attacks are a symptom of an overall anxiety disorder.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Medication

Medication is a central treatment for anxiety disorders, and can help reduce symptoms for many people. Generally, your primary care healthcare provider or psychiatrist, if you have one, will prescribe medication for anxiety.

These medications can include:

  • Anti-anxiety drugs: Benzodiazepines can be useful for the acute treatment of anxiety.
  • Antidepressants: Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants to treat anxiety.
  • Beta blockers: These are off-label medications used to treat the physical symptoms of acute anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat and tremors. This can make them a good treatment for people who experience anxiety attacks during social performance.

Therapy

Anxiety attacks are also treatable through psychotherapy. Talk to your primary care healthcare provider about referring you to a psychiatrist or therapist for your anxiety. Two types of therapy, in particular, are effective at reducing the symptoms and frequency of panic or anxiety attacks.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been widely studied, and is shown to effectively treat anxiety disorders. Through CBT, a therapist teaches you to become aware of your distorted thoughts and behaviors and help you change them in more emotionally adaptive ways.

Exposure therapy may also be effective at treating anxiety attacks, especially those related to specific phobias. In exposure therapy, which may also be done through virtual reality, you are gradually exposed to a frightening stimuli. Through exposure, you are taught adaptive techniques, and adjust to the stimuli, which eventually becomes less frightening.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you experience it once, or a hundred times, an anxiety attack is frightening. It's important to seek medical help for anxiety attacks for a few reasons. First, your healthcare provider may be able to connect you with appropriate treatment, such as medication and psychotherapy, as well as suggesting lifestlye changes that can help you get back to doing the things you love, without fear of a future anxiety attack.

Also, anxiety symptoms can also mimic those of serious medical conditions, such as heart attacks. Your healthcare provider can help diagnose or rule out these conditions, and keep you healthy safe.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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