What Are Anxiety Attacks & How Do You Stop Them?

Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Published 12/09/2020

Anxiety attacks are a terrifying experience, especially for those who have one for the very first time. It can lead to a sense of losing control, and it’s common for people to worry and dread that same experience coming back again. In this article, you will learn what anxiety attacks are and what can be done to cope with them.

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What Is An Anxiety Attack?

You may have heard the terms anxiety or panic attack used before, and for some people, this can be confusing. However, the truth is, there are very subtle differences between a panic attack vs. anxiety attacks.

While these terms are very similar, an anxiety attack typically occurs in anticipation of something stressful or anxiety-inducing.

This anxiety attacks meaning contrasts with panic attacks in that the event can come unexpectedly. However, the abruptness of panic attacks can cause a great sense of fear, and it can cause people to worry about if another one will happen in the future, which can create anxiety.

Essentially, anxiety occurs as a response to something stressful or dangerous, either real or perceived, and in many cases, this natural response is justified. It’s designed to keep you safe and alert through evolution, but for many people, their fight-or-flight response can become overactive.

Because of this, anxiety attacks can have countless different causes, even if an individual isn’t actually in imminent danger – someone can have an anxiety attack. In contrast, pregnant and anticipating labor can have one before an important upcoming exam because it creates a significant amount of stress for that individual.

Different types of anxiety attacks can basically happen for any reason, and waking up with an anxiety attack is also common.

On the other hand, panic attacks can occur for seemingly no reason and can be very unpredictable. When people have them regularly, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder.

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It’s also important to note that anxiety, in a general sense that also includes attacks, is not a diagnosable mental health condition. Rather, it is a larger underlying symptom of a variety of possible issues. However, a handful of different anxiety disorders are diagnosable, and panic disorder is one of these.

Nonetheless, both anxiety and panic attacks can create nearly identical physical and emotional symptoms, which will be covered in the next section.

What Is An Anxiety Attack Like?

When anxiety attacks, it can be a very uncomfortable and frightening situation because of its physical and mental symptoms that can be hard to control for those who don’t know what to do for anxiety attacks when they come up.

So, what happens when you have an anxiety attack? Here are many of the signs and symptoms that will appear: [1]

Mental/Emotional Symptoms

  • Worry and apprehension
  • Fear and dread
  • Derealization and depersonalization
  • Feeling a sense of impending doom.

Physical Symptoms

  • Increased heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Dry mouth
  • Gastrointestinal pain
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

When you have an anxiety attack, you may not experience all of the symptoms listed above, but it’s entirely possible it can happen. Some people may notice some of them gradually appear, and they can become intense as the anxiety persists.

It can be hard to spot what an anxiety attack looks like in someone else because not every symptom is always visible to those looking from the outside. Sometimes, they can happen completely internally.

However, regardless if you have chronic anxiety or you’ve dealt with one episode in the past, you can learn how to stop an anxiety attack now by following the tips in the next section.

How To Treat Anxiety Attacks

Knowing how to handle anxiety attacks isn’t always obvious, especially since the feelings that come with one can be extremely overwhelming. However, you can get back in control by practicing these strategies:

Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques are among the simplest and most effective ways to deal with an anxiety attack because they can be done anytime and anywhere.

They can also be considered reactive and preventative in nature, and that’s also what makes them so useful.

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For example, if you start to feel mild feelings of anxiety, you can start employing breathing and relaxation strategies before it develops into an actual anxiety attack.

An easy one is simply taking slow, deep breaths and letting the air fill your stomach up, then gradually release the air through your pursed lips or nose. This can be done sitting, lying down, or standing, but the former two are preferable because you will most likely be in a comfortable position. [2]

By doing this, you activate the body’s relaxation response, and you regain control of your breathing rate, which also allows for more oxygen to flow through your body to all of your organs.

When you experience the fight-or-flight response during times of stress and anxiety, your breathing can become quicker and shallower, and as it gets worse, it can become an anxiety attack.

Essentially, the relaxation response is the opposite of fight-or-flight, and while there are many ways to elicit it, basic deep breathing techniques are always convenient and reliable.

Medication

Medication prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist can be beneficial for people who may be prone to anxiety attacks towards specific situations. [3]

For example, someone who has severe anxiety towards public speaking and anticipates an anxiety attack may benefit from a low dose of a benzodiazepine and a beta-blocker to prevent one from happening.

Benzodiazepines will help relax your mind, muscles and slow down your thoughts, and they work very quickly, but they also have the potential to be habit-forming, and people can build a tolerance to them.

Therefore, you must use them with care under your doctor’s supervision and only use them seldomly – these are best used as a short-term solution.

Beta-blockers, on the other hand, don’t carry nearly as many risks as benzodiazepines. Instead of slowing down your brain activity to reduce anxiety, beta-blockers work by reducing adrenaline, and it primarily affects your cardiovascular system.

Therefore, when using a beta-blocker, people will have lower blood pressure and notice that their breathing and heart rates are closer to relaxed levels. The physical symptoms, like a rapid heartbeat, sweating, and tremors, are reduced or eliminated.

While beta-blockers don’t affect the mind directly, they reassure that their body isn’t going to overreact to them, which can calm their mental state.

Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can also help prevent anxiety attacks in those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder because it regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is heavily connected to different anxiety disorders, OCD, and of course, depression.

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Therapy

One of the best ways to learn how to prevent anxiety attacks is to try psychotherapy and better understand why you have anxiety in the first place.

There are several different types of therapy methods that can help people overcome anxiety attacks by addressing their source. Still, one of the most popular types is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an evidence-based treatment that can help people deal with countless mental health conditions because it allows people to identify thinking and behavioral patterns that are negative, unproductive, and unhelpful. From there, you can work to change them. [4]

Whether you have one of the many anxiety disorders, OCD, PTSD, or anything that can create an anxiety attack, therapy can give you the skills to solve these problems and provide you with coping skills that you can use forever.

In many cases, this can mean confronting your source of fear and anxiety. While this can seem terrifying, you will be safe under the guidance of a mental health professional who can gradually expose you to them.

Over time, a person can become desensitized, and there is arguably no better way to deal with an anxiety attack than to no longer feel anxious about your old fears.

Do You Have An Anxiety Disorder?

If you are dealing with anxiety attacks regularly or towards specific situations, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.

Since there are different kinds of anxiety disorders, getting an accurate diagnosis, and the treatment you need will require a mental health professional’s assistance. However, there are still things you can do to prepare yourself for that visit.

If you think you might be struggling with an anxiety disorder of some sort, don’t hesitate to take this short and free anxiety test to find out.

It’s never too late to get help, and getting all of the information you need for yourself, such as the results, can mentally prepare you and get you on course to learn how to handle attacks now and in the future.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has given you the knowledge and tools to identify anxiety disorders and deal with them effectively. With the right assistance, anxiety attacks can be stopped, and people who have them can learn how to manage their underlying conditions or keep them under control completely.

References

  1. Casarella, J. (2020, June 02). Symptoms of Panic & Anxiety Attacks. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/anxiety-attack-symptoms
  2. University of Michigan. (2019, December 15). Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation. Retrieved from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2255
  3. Morelli, J., MS. (2016, May 04). Common Anxiety Disorder Medications: Types & Side Effects. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/anxiety_medications/drug-class.htm
  4. American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral