An anxiety or “panic” attack is a sudden feeling of terror so intense that the individual experiencing it fears a total loss of control or imminent death.
In addition to this incredible feeling of fear, an anxiety attack is accompanied by other symptoms such as a pounding heart, lightheadedness, chest pain, difficulty breathing and irrational thoughts.
An anxiety attack can last anywhere from a few moments to as long as an hour.
As terrifying as an anxiety attack may feel, it is not deadly. The approach for managing frequent anxiety attacks begins with a medical evaluation for a potential underlying medical cause, followed by an individualized treatment plan.
Fast facts on anxiety attacks
Here are some key points about anxiety attacks. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- An anxiety attack occurs when the body experiences a sudden surge of adrenaline out of proportion to any perceived danger or threat
- There is often no explainable cause for an anxiety attack
- It is not fully understood why anxiety attacks occur, but research indicates that a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors can make an individual more prone to panic
- Up to 50% of people with panic disorder and 40% of patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) have close relatives with the disorder
- A part of the brain called the amygdala is heavily involved in the etiology of anxiety attacks
- Anxiety attacks typically last 15-30 minutes, although residual effects can persist much longer
- People who have had one anxiety attack are at greater risk of having subsequent ones
- There is no pattern to anxiety attacks; some people may have them daily while others only a few times a year
- A panic disorder is when the attacks occur repeatedly and there is preoccupation with having more attacks
- Panic attacks may occur in other anxiety disorders, where they are specifically triggered by the occurrence or recollections of feared objects or situations.
Symptoms of anxiety attacks
There are situations where an anxiety attack is triggered by a particular event such as flying or public speaking, but the majority of anxiety attacks come on suddenly for no apparent reason.
Whether it be triggered or not, the main symptom of an anxiety attack is a feeling of intense, irrational fear or a feeling of impending doom. In addition, at least four of the following symptoms are also present at the time of the attack.
Sick man looking at a thermometer with worry.
An anxiety attack can cause sweating, dizziness and the sensation of chills or heat.
Symptoms of an anxiety attack include:
Pounding, racing heart
Shortness of breath
A choking sensation
Dizziness or a feeling of “passing out”
Feelings of unreality or detachment
Tingling or numbness
Chills or the sensation of heat
Fear of “going crazy”
Fear of dying.
An anxiety attack occurs when the body experiences a sudden surge of adrenaline that is unprovoked or out of proportion to any perceived danger or threat.
Adrenaline is the hormone involved in the fight-or-flight response, and a sudden release of this hormone prepares the body to flee from danger or to physically confront the danger.
Under normal conditions, adrenaline levels quickly revert to normal once the fear is removed. This drop in adrenaline does not happen with an anxiety attack and a person may take several hours to fully recover from the symptoms.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are several different classified anxiety disorders. Each is marked by different types of symptoms that can, in some cases, be triggered by specific situations.
Panic disorder (PD) involves recurrent (at least two) panic attacks accompanied by the constant fear of future attacks. Panic disorder sufferers may lose their jobs, refuse to travel or leave their home, or completely avoid anything they believe will trigger an attack of anxiety.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a constant state of worry that is out of proportion to the level of actual stress or threat in one’s life.
Phobic disorder is manifested by an incapacitating and irrational fear of an object or situation, such as agoraphobia (fear of open areas and public places), social phobia (fear of social situations) and claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces). Most adults with phobic disorder are aware of the irrationality of their fear and many endure intense anxiety rather than disclose their disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition marked by unwanted repeated thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions). Learn more about OCD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe, persistent emotional reaction to a traumatic event that significantly impairs one’s life. Learn more about PTSD.
Complications of anxiety attacks
Anxiety attack symptoms should be medically evaluated so that a potential cause can be determined.
Because anxiety attacks can mimic other health conditions, it is important for anyone experiencing these symptoms to be evaluated by a health care provider to determine if there is an underlying medical cause.
Conditions that cause symptoms similar to those felt with an anxiety attack include:
Certain drugs of abuse, caffeine and other stimulants can also cause symptoms similar to those felt during an anxiety attack.
Treatment for anxiety attacks
An occasional attack of anxiety does not require ongoing therapy or medical intervention. Instead, it is necessary for individuals to learn how to recognize anxiety and how to manage it in their life.
The standard approach to treating most anxiety disorders is a combination of mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and, depending on the type and severity of the anxiety, medications such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, beta blockers or atypical antipsychotics might be used.
A commonly overlooked aspect of treatment for both GAD and PD is lifestyle changes. Studies have shown that the practice of exercise, meditation, tai chi and yoga has consistently proven to be more effective than placebo and possibly as effective as mainstream medication treatments.
Additionally, eating a healthy diet and practicing good sleep hygiene will help with stress management.
Written by Kathleen Davis FNP