Anxiety Attacks: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments
Reviewed by Dr. Kirsten Davin, OTD, OTR/L, ATP, SMS
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
An anxiety attack is an experience of heightened fear or worry, usually manifesting with both physical and emotional symptoms. It is a nonclinical term used to describe situations in which a person feels an intense level of anxiety that begins to manifest in noticeable and sometimes significant ways.
Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What’s the Difference?
Although the term “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are sometimes used interchangeably, panic attacks are a clinically recognized symptom of panic and anxiety disorders. Typically, when people use these terms in a casual way, they use “anxiety attack” for low to moderate episodes of fear and “panic attack” for more severe episodes.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Many people with anxiety disorders experience what might be described as anxiety attacks. About 18%1 of the U.S. population is affected by anxiety disorders each year. Common types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): GAD is characterized by persistent and excessive anxiety without a specific cause. A person with GAD might experience an anxiety attack for seemingly no reason at all.
- Panic disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by repeated episodes of intense fear and anxiety. Usually, people with panic disorders experience clinical panic attacks. A person might describe less intense panic attacks as anxiety attacks.
- Social anxiety disorder: Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, occurs when a person experiences fear and anxiety related to social situations. Often, their primary fear is based on how they are perceived or judged by others. A person with social phobia may experience an anxiety attack not only when having to interact with others, but at times when just considering or planning interaction with others.
- Phobias: Phobias are an intense fear of a certain object, situation, event, or activity. A person with a phobia may experience an anxiety attack in anticipation of being exposed to the trigger of their fear.
Symptoms: What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?
Since anxiety attacks do not have a clinical definition, they often have a range of symptoms. People who describe certain thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms as an anxiety attack may experience:
- Overwhelming fear or worry
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes
- Dry mouth
- Trouble with concentration
What Causes Anxiety Attacks?
Anxiety attacks may be caused by both internal and external factors. Like anxiety itself, anxiety attacks may be a response to either perceived or actual threats.
Following an anxiety attack, people often have feelings of shame or embarrassment. However, it’s important to remember that the threat your body may be responding to during an anxiety attack feels very real in the moment and in its context.
A therapist can assist in determining some common causes or triggers for your anxiety attacks. They can help you learn how to respond in healthier ways and mitigate anxiety attacks when they occur.
Having a mental health disorder can increase your risk for anxiety attacks. You may have an increased risk if you have:
- An anxiety disorder
- An eating disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Depression or other mood disorders
- Autism spectrum disorder
Genetics may also play a role in your risk for anxiety attacks. If you have a family history of anxiety, anxiety attacks, or another form of mental illness, you may be at an increased risk for anxiety attacks.
External causes may also contribute to anxiety attacks. A person may experience anxiety attacks after a highly stressful or traumatic situation, including:
- Job loss or changes
- Death or personal loss
- School or work-related stress
- Stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic
Treatment for Anxiety Attacks
If you’re suffering from anxiety attacks, help is available. Often, treatment for anxiety attacks may include therapy, medication, or a combination of the two2.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy may be helpful in treating anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks. Depending on your symptoms, a doctor may also prescribe antidepressant medication.
Living with Anxiety
If you or someone you love is experiencing anxiety attacks, there are at-home strategies and lifestyle changes you can try to help alleviate some symptoms. Keep in mind that although these techniques may help, they work best when paired with professional treatment, such as therapy and medication.
Common techniques for reducing anxiety symptoms include:
- Getting enough sleep: Poor sleep habits may cause or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. Remember that it is not only the number of hours you get, but also the quality of sleep that matters.
- Exercising regularly: Regular exercise may help reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Remember that exercise can be as simple as going for a walk or stretching. Any movement is beneficial.
- Meditating: Meditation is the practice of intentional presence and nonjudgmental awareness. By meditating, you can learn how to disarm anxious or judgmental thoughts that may lead to an anxiety attack.
- Deep breathing: Pausing to practice deep breathing can be a critical tool in de-escalating an anxiety attack when it occurs. You can try deep breathing, belly breathing, box breathing, or a number of other strategies to help return to a state of calm.
- Relying on social support: Anxiety can be isolating, so having a reliable support system is important. Join an anxiety support group, or talk with your friends and family about what you are experiencing.
How to Help Someone Having an Anxiety Attack
If you are near someone who is experiencing an anxiety attack, here is how you can help:
- Ask them how you can help: If the person is able to communicate, ask them how you can help. They may have a history of anxiety attacks and know how to de-escalate if someone can assist.
- Encourage them to breathe: Remind them to breathe deeply. Tell them to inhale while counting slowly to four, exhale while counting to four again, then repeat. Coach them through any other deep breathing exercises that you know that may be helpful.
- Communicate your support: Tell the person that you are there for them regardless of how the anxiety attack presents itself. Some people experience shame when they suffer an anxiety attack, which typically worsens the attack. Let them know you are there for them as a compassionate, nonjudgmental helper.
- Assist the person in finding a quiet place: If a person is experiencing an anxiety attack in a very public setting or in front of others, help them get to a quiet, more private space to aid in the calming process.
- Use grounding techniques: Help them use their five senses to ground themselves in the present moment. Squeeze their hand, introduce a new fragrance, have them hold something warm or cold, or encourage them to drink water.
Getting Help for Anxiety
If you are experiencing anxiety attacks, or if your anxiety is getting worse, it may be time to seek out a therapist for help. A therapist can help you find effective treatments to reduce the number of anxiety attacks you have and improve your quality of life. Make an appointment with a therapist who specializes in anxiety today.
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