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Anxiety Attacks: Symptoms and Calming Techniques

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By: Kirstie Ganobsik

Anxiety attacks can seem overwhelming when you’re in the middle of one, but with the right coping tools you can come out the other side.

What is an anxiety attack?

According to the Detroit Medical Center, an anxiety attack is a stretch of time during which you experience “intense” anxiety symptoms, especially fear. It can last anywhere from minutes to weeks.

So, what does an anxiety attack feel like?

A racing heart, dizziness and being out of breath are common experiences for people who are having an anxiety attack, according to Harvard Health. In addition, this “fight-or-flight” response that is triggered by worry or fear can cause more fear to develop, creating a negative loop of panic.

“If you’re feeling lightheaded, your heart racing and chest tightening, it really contributes to a sense that something terrible is going to happen,” said Jacqueline Bullis, an assistant psychologist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, told Harvard Health. “But physical symptoms themselves aren’t the problem. It’s really the way we respond to them. We want people to learn that these distressing physical sensations aren’t dangerous and they can learn ways to tolerate them.”

Anxiety attack symptoms

According to Harvard Health, anxiety attacks occur when your symptoms become so intense that they interfere with everyday activities.

These anxiety symptoms may include:

  • Steadily increasing feelings of fear or worry
  • Panting or gasping for breath
  • Extreme nervous and restless sensations
  • A racing, pounding heart
  • Sweating hands
  • Sensations of dizziness and nausea
  • Feeling panicked because you think something awful is about to occur
  • Feeling like you’re having a heart attack or stroke

It’s always recommended to seek medical care if you’re experiencing symptoms that could indicate a life-threatening medical condition. However, if your doctor finds no signs of an underlying health issue, these symptoms may be markers of an anxiety attack.

Panic attack versus anxiety attack: what’s the difference?

“It is possible to feel really anxious without having a panic attack,” said James Maddux, an emeritus professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

“You probably have sat in situations where you felt really nervous, but you weren’t experiencing what the DSM [psychiatric conditions manual] calls a panic attack… which is the sudden onset for no apparent reason of extreme debilitating, terrifying anxiety,” Maddux added.

According to the National Library of Medicine, the DSM lists a panic attack as a period of “intense fear” that comes on suddenly, reaches its maximum strength within 10 minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath or sensations of smothering
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Choking sensations
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Feelings of unreality or feelings of being detached from oneself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • A numbness or tingling sensation

Heat sensations or chills

Nationwide Children’s Hospital acknowledges that the terms anxiety attack and panic attack are sometimes used “interchangeably,” and notes that a person’s fight-or-flight response is activated in both.

But a key difference is that the symptoms of a panic attack are unexpected and take the person by surprise, while anxiety attacks are more expected because the feelings of worry or fear grow steadily more intense.

How to calm an anxiety attack

While experts may not always agree on the exact definition of anxiety versus panic attacks, what they do find common ground on are some scientifically backed tools that work best to help calm yourself when panic hits.


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