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Am I Having an Anxiety Attack?

writtenByWritten by: Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

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January 15, 2021 Read Time - 7 minutes

Understanding Anxiety and “Anxiety Attacks”

You may be surprised to learn that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not clinically recognize anxiety attacks as a condition. Meaning “anxiety attacks” are not a formal diagnosis within the mental health field. Rather, the DSM-5 defines anxiety as excessive worry occurring more days than not, for at least 6 months.

That said, the term “anxiety attack” is commonly used by the general public, and with the rising rate of anxiety in our community, this term is believed to be created to describe an experience that is not a panic attack but includes an intense sense of anxiety. 

The definition of an “Anxiety Attack” is still developing and varies depending on the source

For the purposes of this article, we will be using the term “anxiety attack” to refer to a sudden period of excessive worry about a situation, experience, or event that subsequently disrupts your daily life. Anxiety attacks can occur at any time, and may involve anxiety around a potentially stressful situation (such as a presentation at work or an important exam). 

Learn more about anxiety attacks, including how to recognize their signs, ways to calm them, and what treatment options are available.

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Signs of Anxiety Attacks

Physical and emotional signs of anxiety attacks include:

  • Apprehension or worry
  • Distress
  • Restlessness
  • Fear
  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the throat or feeling like you’re choking
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling)
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Feeling faint or dizzy

What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

Anxiety attacks are uncomfortable and can be very scary. During an anxiety attack, you may feel a surge of overwhelming panic take over your mind. You may feel your heart racing in your chest. Sometimes, you may have intense chest pain, nausea, hot flashes, trembling, and feel like you will pass out.

Some people feel short of breath or like someone is choking them. You may think you are not getting enough oxygen, which perpetuates the anxiety further. Your hands may feel sweaty and tingly.

It is important that you stay calm and try to perform relaxation techniques until the anxiety attack passes. If someone who knows that you have anxiety attacks is nearby, they can help you get through the attack.

What Happens During an Anxiety Attack?

During an anxiety attack, you tend to have more mental symptoms than physical.  These may include racing thoughts, many worries you cannot stop, and a hard time focusing. You may also feel restless and have a hard time sleeping. Physical symptoms often occur with anxiety attacks and are less mild than panic attacks. After an anxiety attack, you may feel tired, anxious, and frayed. 

How Long Do Anxiety Attacks Last?

The average peak time for an anxiety attack is 10 minutes, and they rarely last more than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, 10 minutes seems like an eternity when experiencing an anxiety attack. The physical symptoms of an anxiety attack are so frightening to some people that you think you are having a heart attack. Remember that while anxiety attacks may be scary, they are not dangerous.

What Causes an Anxiety Attack?

It is not clear what precisely causes anxiety attacks. Some people are more prone to anxiety disorders due to genetics and environment. It is thought that people may have a biological vulnerability to anxiety attacks or may have had traumatic or undesirable events occur in their childhood or young adulthood. Fortunately, anxiety disorder is a treatable condition with many therapy options.

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

The terms anxiety attack and panic attack are used interchangeably, yet they describe different conditions. Panic attacks are often referred to as anxiety attacks, though they are more intense than anxiety attacks. 

The important difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks is that anxiety attacks are typically related to something that is perceived as stressful or threatening, while panic attacks can occur unprompted by external triggers. Anxiety attacks are also milder than panic attacks.

Physical symptoms during a panic attack are often felt as more intense, while emotional symptoms, like racing thoughts, may affect people with anxiety attack more often.

Other symptoms of a panic attack that do not occur with anxiety attacks include:

  • Fear of dying or losing control
  • Derealization (a sense of detachment from the world)
  • Depersonalization (a sense of detachment from oneself)

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), panic disorder includes the experience of recurrent panic attacks, with 1 or more attacks followed by at least 1 month of fear of another panic attack or significant maladaptive behavior related to the attacks. Anxiety attacks are not listed specifically in the DSM, but generalized anxiety disorder is used to describe anxiety attacks.

How to Calm an Anxiety Attack

There are many ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack.

  • During an anxiety attack, you can try breathing techniques to calm yourself. Some anti-anxiety “toys” may be useful such as multisensory objects. These may include a squishy stress relief ball, play foam, putty, fidget spinners, or a spiky slap bracelet.
  • Carry essential oils such as lavender and peppermint with you to smell during an anxiety attack. Essential oils act as aromatherapy to ease attacks.
  • Drink ice-cold water or rub your hands together with a piece of ice. You may notice the coolness radiating down your throat, chest, and body. Feeling this cold in juxtaposition with your warm (often flushed) body can work wonders to calm anxiety attacks.
  • You can try to rub together your hands or feet on a surface such as a chair or rug during an anxiety attack. This helps anchor yourself during an attack, allowing you to focus on reality.
  • You can also visualize your anxiety attack as a wave that is passing you by. You anticipate the wave passing and becoming less intense as it crests.
  • Distract yourself by using a smartphone game like a crossword or a medication app or guided relaxation session.

Try out some of these techniques during an anxiety attack and see which one works best for you.

How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

In the moment, it is difficult to stop anxiety attacks, which is why preventative measures are taken to reduce the number of anxiety attacks. Fortunately, anxiety attacks are highly treatable. According to the American Psychological Association, many people with anxiety attacks significantly improve within 8-10 therapy sessions.

You can reduce or stop anxiety attacks with the following actions:

  • Participate in therapy
  • Take prescription medications
  • Exercise regularly
  • Reduce caffeine intake
  • Reduce alcohol intake
  • Quit smoking
  • Perform strategies to reduce chronic worry
  • Get enough sleep
  • Manage stress responsibly
  • Connect with others that support you

Home Remedies for Anxiety Attack

Practicing these techniques will improve results over time. They do not come naturally, and should be practiced during an anxiety attack or when you feel one coming on.

Home remedies for an anxiety attack include:

  • Take slow, deep breaths
  • Identify the symptoms and tell yourself it will pass soon
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Use relaxation techniques such as imagery
  • Use aromatherapy with essential oils
  • Browse our network of top therapist to find one that matches your needs.

  • Get private and secure emotional support weekly from your dedicated therapist.

  • Experience comprehensive care with unlimited access to your care team and primary care physician.

Talk to an Online Therapist PlushCare-App-Steps

Get Anxiety Treatment Online

Anxiety attacks are uncomfortable, though they can be easily managed with medication, therapy, and other techniques. Getting help for your anxiety can come from a Primary Care Physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.

Anxiety attacks are common and can get worse over time, if left untreated. Do not wait for your anxiety attacks to get better on their own. If you have symptoms of anxiety, or if anxiety attacks that are affecting your daily life, make an appointment with PlushCare today to speak with an online doctor


Read More About Anxiety Attacks


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Managing Stress and Anxiety. Accessed December 20, 2020 at https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety

National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental Health Disorders: Anxiety Disorders. Accessed on December 20, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders

Psychiatry.org. What Are Anxiety Disorders. Accessed December 20, 2020 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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