All About Anxiety Attacks: Triggers, Prevention, and More

What is an anxiety attack?

Anxiety attacks are periods of intense worry, fear, or stress in response to an event, object, or situation. During an anxiety attack, you may feel extreme distress that is difficult to control and becomes overwhelming. Outlined below are the most common signs of an anxiety attack, along with their triggers.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks share many similarities, but there are some differences as well. 

Panic attacks are abrupt surges of very intense fear that are often short-lived, typically lasting less than 15 minutes. During a panic attack, you may feel like you're detached from your body or that things aren't real. You may even feel like you're dying or having a heart attack. Panic attacks generally appear out of the blue and are unexpected. Panic attacks are a symptom of panic disorder.¹

In contrast, anxiety attacks are also often triggered by stressful events but they are less intense than panic attacks. However, while anxiety attacks are often thought of as being milder than panic attacks, they can still be disruptive and negatively affect your life. Anxiety attacks are not in themself a diagnosable condition but they may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.²

What are the signs of an anxiety attack?

Anxiety attacks have a few identifying symptoms. It's important to be able to recognize the signs of an anxiety attack to understand whether what you're experiencing is anxiety.

Here are a few of the most common signs of an anxiety attack:

  • Increased heart rate – One of the most common symptoms of an anxiety attack is an increased heart rate. You may also experience heart palpitations, which feel like your heart is fluttering or pounding.

  • Shortness of breath – It can be hard to catch your breath during an anxiety attack, which can make the anxiety worse. It's important to take deep, slow breaths to help the attack pass.

  • Chest pain – Tightness or feeling like something heavy is pressing down on your chest are common during anxiety attacks.

  • Other physical pain – Anxiety can manifest itself physically through headaches, stomach aches, nausea, or muscle pain.

  • Extreme worry or fear – Anxiety is, by definition, extreme worry or fear. This fear could be related to a stressful event or a worry about something that may happen.

  • Dizziness – Feeling lightheaded, faint, or dizzy may happen during an anxiety attack because breathing tends to become shallower. Dizziness and faintness may be signs that your brain needs more oxygen.

  • Sweating, hot flashes, or chills – These can be your body's natural response to an increased heart rate.

It's important to be aware that many of these symptoms could be signs of other underlying medical conditions. You should see your doctor for a proper diagnosis if you experience these symptoms.

What should you do during an anxiety attack?

If you're experiencing an anxiety attack,³ the best thing you can do is to slow down and take a few deep breaths. It's not uncommon to get caught up in worry and fear, and unless we intervene, it's easy to let the attack spiral. Recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety attacks and try to separate yourself from the trigger of your anxiety.

Often, the thing that is causing you anxiety, whether it is something that happened in the past or something that may happen in the future, will have to be dealt with. But it's best to wait until you're calm and in a better mindset. It's a good idea to take steps to increase your mindfulness and understand what's causing your anxiety. Once you feel calm, you can put the situation into perspective and work on managing any future attacks.

For example, an upcoming meeting at work where you need to give a presentation may trigger an anxiety attack. Your anxiety may be centered around getting up to speak in front of people because you worry that they will judge you or laugh at you. If you assess the situation in a calm state, you may see that your coworkers probably won't be scrutinizing your performance, and they're probably just glad that they're not the one standing up there doing what you’re doing.

Never be afraid to help if you're experiencing an anxiety attack. Often, others can relate to what you're going through and may be able to help put things in perspective.

How can you help someone experiencing an anxiety attack?

If you witness a friend or family member having an anxiety attack, it may be difficult for them to realize what's happening or what's triggering the attack. The best thing you can do is to get them to a safe, familiar location, limit stimuli like noise and light, and assure them that they are safe. Ask them if they would like to talk about their anxiety, or if they would rather do something to distract themselves until the anxiety attack passes.

Sometimes, talking about the anxiety can help, but other times, it may be too overwhelming and can worsen the attack. If this is the case, you can try to engage in calming activities, and encourage them to take deep, slow breaths. You should never promote the use of drugs or alcohol to cope with anxiety.

Instead, try your best to be there for them until the attack subsides. Let them know that while their feelings are real, they are temporary. The anxiety won't last forever – it will eventually pass. After the attack subsides, check in on them regularly to make sure they are able to keep up with self-care tasks like regular meals, sleep, and good hygiene. If these are a problem, it may be time to gently encourage them to see a doctor.

How long do anxiety attacks usually last?

Anxiety attacks can vary in length, unlike panic attacks⁴, which are often short and intense. Depending on the trigger of your attack, anxiety can build for days, culminating in an anxiety attack. The most acute symptoms of the attack will likely last for less than an hour. To shorten the length of your anxiety attack, it's important to first recognize what's happening at the moment. Realize that what you're feeling is anxiety. Notice your heart rate and your breathing, and try your best to slow your thoughts. Realize that, in the midst of an anxiety attack, it's difficult to be rational or start solving the problem you’re facing. If your anxiety is caused by a stressful situation, like worrying about not being able to pay your bills or an upcoming performance review at work, your anxiety likely won’t fully resolve until the event is passed or the problem is solved. This is a great reason to face the issue at hand to help resolve your anxiety more quickly.

What should you do after an anxiety attack?

After you feel your anxiety attack starting to pass, it's important to get plenty of rest and take time to recover. An anxiety attack can be exhausting, so trying to immediately jump back into your normal activities may just perpetuate your anxiety.

Before continuing with your day, take at least a few minutes to practice mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation. These can clear your mind and sharpen your focus. If you have more than a few minutes, try doing some of your favorite relaxing activities. Creative activities like drawing, writing, cooking, or singing can help to get your mind off your worries. Take a shower or bath, eat a healthy meal, and try to engage in some light exercise. Going for a walk, jog, or bike ride can help you blow off steam.

However, you should never ignore the anxiety attack. Once you're fully calm, take a look at what may have triggered the attack, how it affected you, and if there are any steps you can take to resolve the triggers or prevent future attacks.

In many cases, you may need to solve the problem that's at the root of your anxiety. If it's something that you can’t fix at the moment, come up with a plan for how to solve it. That way, if the anxiety hits again, you can take a step back and remember your action plan.

What are the causes or triggers of an anxiety attack?

Each person has unique triggers for their anxiety attacks, and some people are more prone to attacks than others. If you're a particularly anxious person, small things like talking on the phone, paying a bill, or even spending time with friends can be anxiety-inducing.

On the other hand, there are some common anxiety triggers that many people experience:

  • A looming work deadline or meeting – As the date approaches, you may feel your anxiety build. It's normal to feel anxiety in a situation like this. After all, your job is important, and you want to make sure you're doing your best.

  • Having a difficult conversation – Talking with a friend or loved one about something that's troubling you can trigger anxiety attacks. When you have to confront someone you care about, it's hard to predict their emotional reaction, which is why we feel so much anxiety in situations like these.

  • Travel – While everyone loves taking a vacation, the thought of travel makes a lot of people feel anxious. Airports can be crowded, rushed, and stressful environments, and traveling in a car for a long-distance makes some people nervous because of the risk of accidents.

It can be helpful to remember that you aren't alone in feeling anxious. Everyone deals with anxiety at some point or another, so it's important to learn how to deal with these feelings.

Who is at risk of experiencing an anxiety attack?

Anyone can experience an anxiety attack, although some people have more of an anxious disposition than others. If you have been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder or another mental health condition, you may be at a higher risk.

If you've been diagnosed with a mental health condition and want to decrease your risk of experiencing an anxiety attack, talk to your therapist or counselor about steps you can take to stop an anxiety attack in its tracks.

Can anxiety attacks be prevented?

Anxiety is a common part of life. It can be helpful in some situations by making us work harder and faster to meet a deadline, or pushing us to find a solution to a problem. Anxiety attacks, however, don't have to be a part of life.

One of the best things you can do to prevent anxiety attacks is to know yourself and your triggers. As best as you can, avoid things that trigger your anxiety, and notice how you feel when an anxiety attack starts.

From there, when you notice an attack coming on, separate yourself from the situation and try to practice mindfulness techniques. Remind yourself that your anxiety may make you think irrationally, and the anxiety will pass in time.

When should you see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if your anxiety attacks are interfering with your ability to live a happy, productive life. If you find that anxiety attacks make it hard for you to enjoy your hobbies, your performance is suffering at school or work, or you are unable to sustain important relationships, it could be a sign that you need professional help.

Your general practitioner should be able to offer you medical advice and will refer you to a specialist if necessary. They may also be able to prescribe medication to help with anxiety attacks. Any time you feel like your anxiety attacks are overwhelming or you can't handle them on your own, see a trusted medical professional.

Anxiety attacks are a real medical condition and should not be ignored. Don’t hide the problem or feel ashamed by it, as it can be treated and recovery is possible. Millions of Americans experience anxiety every year, and you aren't alone.

If your anxiety attacks continue, you may receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder or a related diagnosis. Talking to a therapist or psychologist can help you work out coping methods so that you can better handle your anxiety as it arises.

The lowdown

While anxiety is part of life, don’t let anxiety attacks rule your life. It's important to understand the symptoms, spot your triggers.

If you find that you are often experiencing anxiety attacks and they are getting in the way of you living your life in your relationships, job, school, and other activities, it’s time to seek help. Talk to your doctor if anxiety attacks are an ongoing problem in your life.

  1. Answers to your questions about panic disorder | American Psychological Association

  2. Anxiety disorders | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health

  3. Panic disorder (2021)

  4. Panic disorder | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health



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