What an Anxiety Attack Feels Like
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Anxiety attacks are the manifestation of a fight-or-flight response gone awry, which may rise up seemingly at random or in response to an emotional stimulus.
Anxiety attack symptoms
It’s hard to breathe, your heart is racing, your chest hurts, and you have an overwhelming feeling of dread. The symptoms of an anxiety attack, or “panic attack,” are often severe and debilitating. One second you feel fine and the next you’re spiraling out of control. It’s easy to confuse this phenomenon with a heart attack or an asthma attack because of the physical symptoms; however, fear is a key factor.
What are anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks are the fight-or-flight response gone awry. The level of anxiety you experience during an attack will feel just as severe as if you were in real danger. It’s no wonder anxiety attacks can be so frightening.
It's important to determine if what you experienced is actually an anxiety attack and not something else. Most of the same symptoms are present with arrhythmias, heart attacks, asthma attacks, and other diseases.
Common characteristics of an anxiety attack
- Heart racing or beating out of your chest
- Difficulty breathing
- Pupillary dilation
- Feelings of panic, fear or disorientation
Anxiety attack causes
Anxiety attacks can be described by feelings of intense worry, fear, or dread. They are essentially an experience of your body's "fight or flight" response gone awry. Anxiety attacks are a relatively common experience; however, they have strong physical symptoms that sometimes makes them hard to differentiate from other conditions.
The first time you experience an anxiety attack, you might think it's a heart attack. The opposite can be true as well — you don’t want to shrug off a heart attack as “just an anxiety attack.” Most people experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime, but this does indicate a disorder. Anxiety attacks are considered a disorder when they are frequent or chronic. A summary of panic attack causes and other diseases are described below.
Psychiatric disorders associated with anxiety attacks include the following.
- Anxiety disorder: Some people have anxiety disorders in which they get frequent anxiety attacks.
- Post-traumatic stress: Individuals can experience panic-type symptoms after exposure to extreme trauma.
The palpitations and shortness of breath of arrhythmia are often confused with anxiety attacks.
Causes of anxiety attacks related to the respiratory system may include the following.
- Asthma attack: Asthma attacks are associated with difficulty breathing and an elevated heart rate.
- Lung disease exacerbation: Similar to asthma, acute exacerbations of chronic lung disease can cause panic attack-like symptoms.
- Toxins: Various environmental toxins can lead to anxiety and anxiety attack-like symptoms.
- Drug overdose: Overdosing on certain stimulant drugs, such as caffeine, amphetamine, or cocaine can lead to symptoms similar to an anxiety attack, such as palpitations and extreme anxiety.
- Allergic reaction: A severe allergic reaction can create symptoms of an anxiety attack.
Rare tumors of endocrine organs can produce adrenaline and other hormones leading to panic attack-like symptoms.
Metabolic abnormalities such as severe infection, traumatic injury, or changes in temperature or electrolyte levels can trigger physical symptoms similar to those of an anxiety attack.
Panic disorder is a chronic condition that involves repeated episodes of panic attacks, as well as worry about future attacks or consequences of attacks, or unhelpful changes in behavior to avoid the attacks. Panic attacks are episodes of sudden-onset fear, discomfort, and/or other symptoms tha..
Panic or anxiety attack(s)
Panic or anxiety attacks are sudden feelings of intense fear or stress without true danger. Symptoms usually peak and then decrease within minutes. One may feel as if they are losing control or have physical symptoms like sweating or a racing heart. A panic attack can be a very scary experience and should be taken seriously.
Symptoms that always occur with panic or anxiety attack(s): anxiety or anxiety/panic attacks
Urgency: Primary care docto
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems in the United States. Generalized anxiety disorder refers to ongoing feelings of worry and anxiousness that persists for at least six months. Generalized anxiety disorder seems to run in families, making some individuals more vulnerable to stressors than others.
Symptoms include constant feelings of worry over both major and everyday events, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, feeling tired, irritability, as well as physical symptoms, such as headaches and body aches.
The diagnosis is made by patient history and physical examination to rule out physical causes. The individual may be referred to a mental health specialist for further evaluation and treatment, which may involve talk therapy to learn new ways to manage stress, medications, and lifestyle adjustments.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, trouble sleeping, general anxiety (stress), irritability, nausea
Symptoms that always occur with generalized anxiety disorder (gad): general anxiety (stress)
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a psychological condition caused by trauma, especially by any violent attack such as robbery, assault, or combat. "Acute" means that clear symptoms appear within days of the traumatic event. Most susceptible are those with a previous history o..
Post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops as a reaction of trauma. One can get PTSD after living through or seeing a traumatic event, such as war, a hurricane, sexual assault, physical abuse, or a bad accident. PTSD causes stress and fear after the danger is over.
Top Symptoms: psychological or physiological distress
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Anxiety attack treatments and relief
Anxiety attacks are generally predictable as to when they're going to occur — usually over a 20-minute period. It's typical to need a few minutes to calm back down afterward. Many people experience at least one anxiety attack throughout their lives, which can be managed at home. However, if these attacks become frequent and debilitating, it may be necessary to see a professional to reduce their frequency and severity.
Symptoms of your anxiety attack may be helped significantly by the following.
- Find a quiet place: Many people find it easier to manage an anxiety attack when they are isolated from sources of stress or excess stimulation.
- Identify and avoid triggers: Sometimes, triggers of anxiety attacks are apparent. It can be helpful to look for patterns and avoid triggers.
- Seek help: Reach out to a friend or a mental health professional for support.
When to see a doctor
If more conservative measures are not effective, you should consult your physician. He or she may recommend the following to help alleviate your symptoms.
- Therapy: Various cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques can help reduce anxiety attacks, making your condition more manageable.
- Medications: Some prescription medications can be used to reduce the frequency of anxiety attacks or to significantly shorten their duration when you feel one coming on.
When it is an emergency
You should seek help without delay if you have:
FAQs about anxiety attack
What can trigger an anxiety attack?
Anxiety attacks are triggered by various aspects of life. This may include fear of social situations or worries about work or interpersonal relationships. Anything that adds to daily stress can trigger the processes that initiate a panic attack.
Can you die from having an anxiety attack?
Panic attacks are not generally fatal. They can be dangerous if they occur during a moment when a person can harm themselves or someone else (e.g. operating a vehicle, walking across the street), or if the body is unable to handle the increased arousal from the panic attack. A heart attack (myocardial infarction) caused by increased heart rate in someone with severe cardiovascular disease may result in death. However, these circumstances are very rare.
What causes anxiety attacks for no reason?
Most anxiety attacks are triggered by extreme thoughts, emotions, or traumatic exposures. It may be challenging for some people to discover their trigger, and for other people, it may be obvious. A counseling session with a psychologist or psychiatrist may be helpful. Diseases that cause unforeseen increased arousal can cause panic attacks. Diseases that increase heart rate or drop blood pressure suddenly may also trigger a panic attack.
Why do I only have anxiety attacks at night?
It is not known what causes nocturnal anxiety attacks. They can be a sign of a more comprehensive sleep disorder. If they persist, you should see a professional. Anxiety attacks at night are different from night terrors, however. Night terrors are when individuals experience fear-inducing dream states and may sleepwalk or even act out elements of his or her dream.
Questions your doctor may ask about anxiety attack
- Are your symptoms causing difficulty at work, socializing, or spending time with friends & family?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with a psychiatric issue, such as depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, or anxiety disorder?
- Are there specific situations that cause your anxiety, or does it seem that almost anything will make you anxious?
- Are you feeling irritable (easily made upset)?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Jesse Passman is a PGY-1 surgery resident. He graduated from Rice University with a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. During medical school, Jesse performed work in public health and surgery, taking a year-out to pursue an MPH at the University of Pennsylvania and do research in global surgery and the public health implications and clinical outcomes of trauma. In his free time, Jesse likes to travel, hike, backpack, and cycle.
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