What Does An Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

Most people tend to confuse anxiety attacks with panic attacks. Though they can be similar in a lot of ways – both bring about symptoms like rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness – it’s important to understand the distinction between the two. This way, should you ever experience either one, you can get the appropriate treatment you need.

In this quick guide, we talk about some of the key symptoms of both anxiety and panic attacks, as well as how you can differentiate the two. We also discuss some ways you can take care of yourself during and after an attack.

Anxiety Or Panic Attacks?

Imagine you’re hiking in the woods. On the trail, you see a sign that says there are cougars in the area. You get nervous thinking about the possibility of encountering a one on your hike. You start thinking about possible ways you can respond if the situation arises. Your heart rate speeds up, your breathing gets faster, and your muscles tense. Generally, however, you still feel grounded and in control.

This is anxiety – a feeling of hypervigilance, restlessness, and worry about a future event. People with anxiety often tend to anticipate the worst outcome from that event. Anxiety usually happens gradually, but it can linger for days or even months, becoming a chronic condition.

Now imagine a cougar leaps out in front of you. Now, your heart is pounding. You start hyperventilating and feel as if you can’t catch your breath. You tremble, sweat profusely, and you feel dizzy and lightheaded – as if you might pass out. You feel as if you’re losing control of your own body.

This is a panic attack – an overwhelming feeling of danger, and an urge to escape from the situation – and it’s triggered by the fight-or-flight response. When faced with an immediate threat, the brain releases adrenaline as a way to prepare your body to go into survival mode. Panic attacks usually last about five to 20 minutes, but they can feel like forever. For those who have never experienced one, it can feel as if you’re having a heart attack.

Panic Attack Symptoms

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a panic attack is characterized by at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations and chest pain
  • Hyperventilation or difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Nausea, vomiting, and stomach pains
  • Cold sweats, feeling clammy, or hot flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Derealization, or feeling as if you’re detaching from your surroundings
  • Depersonalization, or feeling like you’re disconnected from your own body
  • Having a feeling of impending doom and feeling like you’re losing control of your body
  • Feeling like you’re about to die

Though panic attacks go away in less than 30 minutes, the feeling of distress, restlessness, and fatigue can carry on for several hours or days after.

Keep in mind that panic attacks can come on suddenly and without warning. Because of this, some people develop a fear of experiencing another attack, avoiding places that could potentially trigger their anxiety. Some people also avoid places where it could be dangerous or embarrassing to experience a panic attack. If this is something that happens to you, you may want to consider consulting with a mental health professional, as these are symptoms of a panic disorder.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

The term “anxiety attack” is not formally recognized by the DSM-5. Unlike a panic attack which can feel like an intense, almost life-or-death situation, anxiety is more like a lingering feeling of worry or dread – usually about something in particular. There are people who may experience persistent and unmanageable anxiety to the point where it feels like an anxiety “attack”. Generally, when this happens, the person may be diagnosed by a mental health professional as having an anxiety disorder.

Some symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Feeling like you can’t focus on day-to-day tasks
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Being easily startled
  • Stomach issues
  • Muscle tension, especially around the back, neck, and shoulders
  • Headaches due to increased tension
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping

What Is An Anxiety Disorder?

When stress and anxiety takes over your day-to-day life, keeping you from doing basic tasks, participating in social events, or maintaining relationships, you may be struggling with an anxiety disorder. Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic Disorder: As mentioned, panic disorders are characterized by the fear of recurring and unexpected panic attacks. Panic disorder can be severely debilitating and isolating.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: This is characterized by excess, persistent, and unreasonable worry about everyday things, such as work, school, relationships, finances, and one’s health. GAD can manifest physical symptoms of anxiety like extreme fatigue, muscle tension, and sleep difficulties.
  • Agoraphobia: This is a condition marked by anxiety or panic in situations that feel beyond a person’s control. This includes crowded places, enclosed spaces, and public transportation. Because of this, agoraphobes avoid leaving their “safe zones”.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: This anxiety disorder is characterized by extreme distress in social situations. Most people with SAD fear judgment and ridicule, and tend to avoid large gatherings and meeting new people.
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder: Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder include anxiety and panic over being away from loved ones or family members for extended periods of time.
  • Specific Phobias: Phobias are irrational fears about a particular object or experience, such as public speaking, flying, heights, spiders, or vomiting. People with phobias can experience panic attacks when faced with their fear.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are two other mental illnesses that are closely related to anxiety. People who suffer from OCD can experience disturbing, intrusive thoughts. To cope with the anxiety brought upon by their worries, people with OCD develop compulsions, or behaviors that they must perform to gain a sense of relief.

People with PTSD, on the other hand, experience nightmares, flashbacks, and other symptoms of anxiety due to traumatic experiences.

Coping Strategies

If you ever find yourself experiencing a panic attack (or if you can anticipate one coming), you can turn to the following relaxation techniques:

  • Remind yourself that panic attacks are temporary: One of the most frightening things about panic attacks is the feeling that the intense anxiety symptoms won’t go away. Remind yourself that the moment will pass and that you will get better in a few minutes.
  • Take slow and deep breaths: Taking slow, deep breaths helps you stop yourself from hyperventilating and exacerbating your anxiety. Close your eyes and focus on your breaths, counting as you inhale and exhale.
  • Try grounding techniques: One popular grounding technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Try to observe five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing to be thankful for. When you do this, you pull away from the negative thoughts and feelings and focus on what’s right in front of you.

It’s important to point out that these strategies are short-term solutions that will help you deal with your feelings and symptoms in the moment. If you believe that you are suffering from anxiety attacks or an anxiety disorder, there are long-term solutions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, group therapy, and medication.

At Transformations at Mending Fences, we offer various treatment options for all kinds of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse problems.