Anxiety Attack Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your anxiety attack symptoms, including 5 causes & common questions.

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  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 5 Possible Anxiety Attack Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

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

Anxiety attacks may be associated with these common symptoms [1]:

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 [1].

Psychiatric causes

Psychiatric disorders associated with anxiety attacks include the following [2].

  • 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.

Cardiovascular causes

The palpitations and shortness of breath of arrhythmia are often confused with anxiety attacks [3].

Respiratory causes

Causes of anxiety attacks related to the respiratory system may include the following [4,5].

  • 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.

Environmental causes

Environmental causes can be related to certain exposures or lifestyle habits [6].

  • 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.

Endocrine causes

Rare tumors of endocrine organs can produce adrenaline and other hormones leading to panic attack-like symptoms.

Metabolic causes

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.

5 Possible Anxiety Attack Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced anxiety attack. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Panic disorder

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...

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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.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms:

Symptoms that always occur with panic or anxiety attack(s): anxiety or anxiety/panic attacks

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Anxiety Attack Symptom Checker

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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 disorde...

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Acute stress disorder

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...

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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.

Rarity: Common

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.

At-home treatment

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

Here are some frequently asked questions about anxiety attacks.

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

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • 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)?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your anxiety attack. These questions are also covered.

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Anxiety Attack Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced anxiety attack have also experienced:

  • 4% Fatigue
  • 3% Anxiety
  • 3% Tremor

People who have experienced anxiety attack were most often matched with:

  • 40% Panic Or Anxiety Attack(S)
  • 30% Panic Disorder
  • 30% Generalized Anxiety Disorder (Gad)

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Anxiety Attack Symptom Checker

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  1. Panic attack: Symptoms. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. ADAA Link
  2. Anxiety disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Updated July 2018. NIMH Link
  3. McCann U. Anxiety and heart disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  4. Nardi AE. Panic disorder is closely associated with respiratory obstructive illnesses. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 2009;179(3). ATS Journals Link
  5. Sardinha A, Freire RC, Zin WA, Nardi AE. Respiratory manifestations of panic disorder: Causes, consequences and therapeutic implications. Jornal Brasileiro de Pneumologia. 2009;35(7):698-708. NCBI Link
  6. Bystritsky A, Khalsa SS, Cameron ME, Schiffman J. Current diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders. Pharmacy and Therapeutics. 2013;38(1):41-4, 57. NCBI Link