Anxiety attacks: what are they and what to do

If you ever felt restless, you couldn’t stop worrying and you felt overwhelmed by the idea something bad was bound to happen, you have probably experienced an anxiety attack.

What is an anxiety attack?

The term anxiety attack is not an official clinical term, but it is popularly used to describe those symptoms that fall under the category of anxiety disorders, an umbrella term that outlines the condition of chronic worry, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbance – among other characteristics.

While worries and fears can be useful tools to anticipate threats and avoid harmful consequences, the worrying involved in generalized anxiety disorder – which can ultimately result in anxiety attacks – is intrusive and disruptive, it is unsettling, stressful, and it is uncontrollable.

What causes an anxiety attack

There is no definitive cause linked to panic attacks, but studies suggest a connection between anxiety attacks and major life events. In addition to particularly stressful times in someone’s life – such as work or financial pressure, common triggers are: graduating from college, getting married, having a child, coping with loss or separation.

Experts have also identified a genetic predisposition to anxiety attacks, often embedded in general susceptibility to anxiety disorders. There seems to be no connection between such predisposition and ethnicity. On the other hand, women seem to be twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. However, there are no conclusive findings that explain why.

Difference between panic and anxiety attack

Although the terms might look interchangeable, anxiety attacks differ from panic attacks in their causes (or lack thereof), intensity and length. While anxiety attacks usually develop gradually and are often triggered by a specific event, panic attacks occur suddenly, can’t be stopped and only last a few minutes. A panic attack is an instance of panic disorder and it is a diagnosable condition recognized by the American Psychological Association, whereas anxiety attacks are not a diagnosable condition and they are a result of a prolonged state of anxiety which might ultimately develop in what we come to identify as an attack.

anxiety attack

How to tell if you are having an anxiety attack

Symptoms of anxiety attacks may be similar to those of panic attacks, but they are often less intense. The most common signs are:

  • restlessness;
  • irritability;
  • difficulty concentrating;
  • shaking;
  • physiological hyperactivity (sweating, palpitations)
  • difficulty breathing.

Some even mistake these symptoms for heart attacks, given the accelerated heart rate and chest pain that sometimes accompany an anxiety or panic attack.

Although they are not necessarily dangerous, anxiety attacks can be hard to manage and they might require medical attention. Suffering from anxiety or panic disorders can be quite unsettling, but there are coping strategies and treatment plans you can discuss with your doctor,  who can also help you find available psychological therapies services.

How to get over an anxiety attack

If you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, anxiety attacks or panic attacks, the number one self-help tip is to connect with others. If you find yourself spiraling, talk to a family member, a friend or a trusted clinician.

While social interaction is a proven anxiety relief, some may prefer listening to soothing music or sounds, enjoying a tasty beverage or playing an instrument.

A growing body of evidence recognizes the beneficial effects of exercise on mental health. Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and studies found that working out, going for a walk or simply being outside improves psychological, physiological and immunological functions.

The NHS suggests trying to confront the event triggering your anxiety attack and avoid looking for distractions. Professor Paul Salkovskis says it’s crucial to give yourself the time to understand nothing bad is going to happen. The symptoms you are experiencing are caused by anxiety and you are not in any physical danger.

Long-term treatment

Whether we are dealing with anxiety attacks, panic attacks or generalized anxiety disorder, psychologists often employ a form of psychotherapy known as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy.) Due to the small number of high-quality trials, effects of CBT are still uncertain, but the Royal College of Psychiatrists recognizes CBT as an effective tool to change those thought patterns that often trigger disproportionate reactions of worry and tension. Patients also learn behavioral techniques to manage anxiety triggers.

In addition to CBT, psychiatrists may decide – together with the patient – to couple psychotherapy with anxiolytic medications. Benzodiazepines, for example, are effective drugs to treat anxiety, due to their effect on the neurons that trigger stress and anxiety reactions.

Need support for your mental wellbeing?

Everyone needs some help sometimes. If you suffer from anxiety attacks or you fear for your mental wellbeing, talk to one of our MedVisit doctors. We’ll help understand your situation and get more information about the treatments available for you.