May 29, 2024

How Do Anxiety Attacks Feel?

Man using a laptop

An anxiety attack is the sudden onset of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions of intense fear or worry. If you think you’ve had one or know someone who has, you may wonder, “How do anxiety attacks feel?” Learning more about these episodes can help you decide if you should seek treatment. It can also help you understand what your friend or loved one is going through.

This article explains what an anxiety attack is and describes the physical and psychological feelings it generates.

How to Identify an Anxiety Attack

If you’re having an anxiety attack for the first time, you may not know what it is, but you probably understand that it’s outside of your normal range of emotions. The physical and mental/emotional sensations are intense and impossible to ignore.

Each person’s experience with anxiety attacks is unique, but the episodes tend to last for around 10 minutes. Common physical symptoms of anxiety attacks include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid or fluttering heartbeat (called heart palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea
  • Tightness in the throat or sense of choking
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Numbness or tingling sensations

Equally concerning in an anxiety attack are the mental and emotional symptoms, which can include:

  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Sense of danger or impending doom
  • Feeling that you might die
  • Sense of unreality or detachment from reality
  • Subsequent worry that you may have another episode

It’s important to understand that knowing you’re having an anxiety attack doesn’t necessarily empower you to stop it. People typically can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s an anxiety attack. I’ll be fine.” The condition tends to override rational thinking temporarily.

Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack

You may hear the terms anxiety attack and panic attack used interchangeably. However, there technically is no definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for “anxiety attack.” So, healthcare professionals may be more inclined to use the term “panic attack.”

There’s also a distinction between having a panic attack and having a panic disorder. Anyone can have an anxiety or panic attack, and it may be a one-time or rare occurrence. Panic disorder involves repeated episodes and ongoing concern that another attack will occur.

Anxiety Attack Triggers and Risk Factors

Anxiety attacks can have triggers, including intense and unfamiliar stress (like having to give a toast or speech if that’s not something you frequently do). However, they can also occur for no apparent reason.

Risk factors for having anxiety attacks include:

  • Family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
  • New life stress like the death of a loved one or divorce
  • Trauma like sexual assault or severe auto accidents
  • Excessive caffeine intake or smoking
  • History of childhood physical or sexual abuse

When to See Your Doctor About Anxiety Attacks

If an anxiety attack is an isolated incident and you aren’t worried about having another, you may not need treatment. However, if one or more anxiety attacks give you ongoing concern about future episodes, you can talk with your doctor.

Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders respond best when addressed early. Treatment with psychotherapy (or talk therapy) and medications can be effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of anxiety attacks and other anxiety-related conditions.

You can use our online provider directory to find a Baptist Health doctor near you.

Important: If you or someone you’re with experiences thoughts of suicide or self-harm due to anxiety attacks or other anxiety disorders, call 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can also call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Learn More.