What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

You’re on a plane that is experiencing major, bone-rattling turbulence. You are lost in an unfamiliar place and you don’t know how to get your bearings. You have a meeting scheduled with human resources at your company, and you think you may be let go as part of a layoff. All of these situations are highly stressful and can be difficult to deal with. But for some people, these types of events trigger a rush of terror where the sense of fear can be overwhelming. In these cases, the episodes could be called anxiety attacks. But what are anxiety attacks, and how can you deal with them if you experience them? 

What is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attacks can take different forms for different people. The trigger situations vary from individual to individual, and symptoms can also take different forms. For instance, someone taking a big test or stuck in a dangerous situation might feel a rush of anxiety because their fight-or-flight response has been triggered. This is considered a normal biological function and in fact it is a sign that your body is operating as it should because it can detect situations that may cause harm. These kinds of anxiety attacks may be low level, and they generally go away as soon as the situation has resolved itself.

Then there are other kinds of anxiety attacks. Unlike low-grade feelings of worry, these attacks bring about an intense feeling of fear, to the point that the person cannot function and feels paralyzed. These types of attacks generally don’t last a long time, either, but the pressure and fear experienced during the attacks can feel insurmountable. What’s worse is that these anxiety attacks aren’t always triggered by a specific situation that poses a threat; they may come out of the blue, which can be even more frightening. Often, these can be considered panic attacks, and they could be a sign of an anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder, if they occur more than once, or an indication of a mental health issue such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, panic attacks may also be a manifestation of an underlying health problem, such as low blood sugar or hyperthyroidism. Unlike anxiety attacks that are a normal response to stress and occur infrequently, panic attacks should warrant treatment. That is why it is important to understand the symptoms and signs associated with these kinds of anxiety attacks. 

Symptoms of Anxiety and Panic Attacks

A panic-style anxiety attack can crop up suddenly and dissipate almost as quickly. There are several characteristics of these lightning-fast panic attacks that help people know they are experiencing this type of attack. It’s worth noting that experiencing only one or two of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily indicate a panic attack; generally, there need to be or four more of these symptoms occurring simultaneously.

  • Racing heart rate or palpitations
  • Overwhelming sense of anxiety
  • Difficulty breathing, to the point where a person may feel as if they are choking or suffocating
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Sweating and hot or cold flashes
  • A feeling of dead weight or tingles through the arms and legs
  • Unreasonable worry about dying as a result of the panic attack

Panic attacks can occur on their own, or they could be a red flag of a panic disorder. This is a type of anxiety disorder that can create a constant fear in a person because they are consumed with worrying about when a panic attack may occur, and they may go out of their way to avoid instances when these attacks could be triggered. This can negatively affect their quality of life if it prevents them from, for instance, attending school or fulfilling work obligations. Frequent bouts of anxiety attacks can also signal a generalized anxiety disorder. This type of disorder is typified by constant and excessive worry about all kinds of situations, even those that don’t warrant that level of concern. These feelings should usually last longer than six months in order for a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder to be made. People with generalized anxiety disorder can experience tiredness, restlessness, irritability, lack of focus, insomnia or other sleep issues, and tension in all the muscles of the body. Seeking out treatment can help people guard against panic attacks or teach them how to use coping mechanisms to get them through an episode if it does occur.

How to Deal with an Anxiety Attack

With both low-level anxiety attacks and panic attacks, it is important to remember they are short-lived; the scary feelings that come with these attacks will go away, and often it’s sooner rather than later. Keeping that reassurance at the front of your mind—or even writing it down somewhere you can look at it during an attack—can help you get through it.

There are other coping strategies that may help alleviate the worst of anxiety attacks and help get you through it faster. For instance, deep, rhythmic breathing is known to help get a steady flow of oxygen to the brain, where the fight-or-flight stress response originates, and calms the body’s systems that have been put on high alert—for instance, the heart rate slows down and evens out and muscles throughout the body relax and release tension. For deep breathing to be truly effective, inhalation and exhalation needs to travel all the way through the diaphragm, swelling the belly on the inhale. Sitting or laying down in a comfortable position, slowly and deeply inhale through the nose to a count of five, then exhale out the breath out through the nose or mouth to another five count. 

This type of deep breathing is often used in meditation, and there are other meditative techniques that can also be helpful during anxiety attacks. Some people like to have a calming word or phrase, similar to a meditative mantra, that can be repeated during an anxiety attack. Others like to close their eyes and practice mindfulness. By clearing the head of racing or negative thoughts and focusing on the physical sensations that are experienced in the moment, people can feel grounded and more stable. Still others find it useful to have some calming essential oils or incense that can be used as a type of stress relief aromatherapy. On the opposite side of the spectrum, just as exercise can be a mood booster and stress reliever by creating a rush of feel-good endorphins in the body, physical activity may be helpful in easing panic attack symptoms. 

While there are several different measures that can be employed to help work through a panic attack, any anxiety or panic disorder that is at the root of the attacks needs to be treated in order to find more lasting relief.

Treatment for Anxiety and Panic Attacks and Related Disorders

Panic and anxiety disorders can lead to a scary feeling that your life is out of control, and proper treatment is meant to give you some measure of that control back. A treatment plan should be individualized to each person, depending on factors such as genetic history of anxiety disorders, an undue amount of stress in their lives, and co-occurring conditions such as mental health issues or trauma that can influence the anxiety disorder. 

With any treatment plan for anxiety, psychotherapy and medication can be two major components, used on their own or in tandem. Cognitive-behavioral therapy tends to be the gold standard when it comes to therapeutic treatment, as it helps retrain the brain to take negative thoughts and give them a more positive spin. By changing how patients look at the situations that trigger anxiety and panic attacks, cognitive behavioral therapy can help reduce the incidence rates of those attacks. The most common medications that are used in anxiety disorder treatments are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), both of which are classes of antidepressants. Again, the type of medication and therapy should be customized to each patient’s needs and particular circumstances.

Panic and anxiety attacks can cause stress not just during the attacks, but before and after as well. The worry and stress involved with anticipating these attacks can take a toll on the mind and body, affecting many areas of a person’s life. Welcome relief can be found with the right treatment facility, however. At Casa Palmera, our team is highly skilled in anxiety and panic disorder treatment, providing comprehensive, compassionate and customized care to every patient. If you are struggling with anxiety or panic attacks, contact us today to get help.