What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

It's getting more and more common to hear people say that they've had an anxiety attack. But, what does that mean, and is it the same as a panic attack? 

We hope to help you to uncover the answer to this question as well as to provide some guidance about anxiety attacks. 

You may be wondering what an anxiety attack feels like, especially if you are unfamiliar. As you read on, you will find information that speaks to exactly what someone may be referring to when they use the term "anxiety attack" as well as tips that may help if one unexpectedly comes about.

Anxiety

Anxiousness is a common feeling that many people may experience. However, there are cases where this goes far beyond a common feeling and can lead to severe impairments. Anxiety, in the most general sense, refers to anticipation or concern for a future event, and is most often manifested as intense worry. There are many different types of anxiety disorders but for the purposes of this article, we will be looking at four main types.

  • Panic disorder or panic attack: This is a form of anxiety that presents itself unexpectedly without any fear-provoking cues necessarily being present. Panic attack symptoms include derealization (feeling disconnected from reality) or feeling overwhelmed, coupled with physical signs such as a racing heart/heart palpitations, muscle tension, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, and choking sensations. People often report feeling as though they are having a heart attack and so may visit an emergency room. Panic attacks are usually sudden and severe rather than feeling a buildup of symptoms over time. 

Other forms of anxiety include: 

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: This is characterized by a feeling of excessive or persistent worry. This is usually ongoing and is generally the disorder behind common anxiety symptoms. 
  • Specific phobias: This is a type of anxiety disorder marked by feelings of fear that relate to specific things or situations. In most cases, the person is aware of their excessive fear toward the specific thing and they may go to extremes to avoid that trigger. A common example of this is agoraphobia, which is an intense fear that has to do with someone being afraid that they may become trapped with a route for escape, such as when boarding public transit, or even just leaving the safety of their home. Phobia fear can be related to a traumatic event, or it can be unrelated to anything at all. 
  • Social anxiety disorder: This is fear of being embarrassed, rejected, humiliated, or criticized in social situations. It may be marked by avoidance behavior.

Common signs and symptoms consistent across these types of anxiety include: 

  • Psychological: intense worry, distress, restlessness, fear
  • Physical: chest pain, shortness of breath, dry mouth, sweating, trembling or shaking, headache, feeling faint or dizzy
  • Behavioral: avoidance behaviors 

Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks

While a panic disorder is a type of anxiety, it is important to note that a panic attack and an anxiety attack are actually very different. While the DSM 5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines a panic attack and guides mental health professionals on how to diagnose it, it does not provide the same specific medical advice or list of criteria for an anxiety attack. The reasoning here is because an anxiety attack may vary from person to person and may result from any type of anxiety, versus panic disorders where panic attacks generally involve the same physical symptoms even if the underlying causes of a panic attack may differ. 

This is to say that "anxiety attack" is not a clinical term, but instead a more informal phrase within the mental health community that people use to explain what they may be experiencing. 

Before explaining what an anxiety attack feels like, let’s go over the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. 

For a working definition, we can say that an anxiety attack is a moment of intense worry or feeling of anxiousness. This differs from a panic attack in that panic attacks are: 

  • Not necessarily induced by any fear-provoking cues, it can come on suddenly and unexpectedly. 
  • During a panic attack, a person may experience fear of dying or loss of control. 
  • During a panic attack, a person may feel rapid increases in heart rate as if they are having a heart attack, and often may visit the ER.
  • A panic attack is marked by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, trembling, and shaking, among other signs.

What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

So, now that we know what an anxiety attack is not, let’s determine what it is and what it may feel like. 

  • An anxiety attack is most likely to be brought on by some fear-provoking cue or something perceived as stressful or potentially threatening. For instance, say you have a fear of iguanas. It is a nice sunny day and you are walking down the road. Let's say you see an iguana, then you start to notice certain emotional or physical reactions that may persist or increase in intensity. In this case, it may be a phobia anxiety and this may lead to an anxiety attack. 
  • Since an anxiety attack is generally related to a fear-provoking cue, it may go away once the cue is removed. If we take the same example, once the iguana crawls away or is no longer in sight, you may notice that the reactions you are having begin to disappear and you begin to calm down without having to consciously use relaxation techniques like deep breathing to do so.
  • An anxiety attack can be mild, severe, or somewhere in between. For instance, you may have already been thinking about the possibility of seeing an iguana in the back of your mind and may experience minor reactions to such worries. However, once you actually see the iguana, the feelings may increase. 
  • Anxiety attacks generally build up gradually, although they can seem to come out of nowhere. 
  • Although you may experience similar symptoms to a panic attack, these symptoms are usually not as intense or physically debilitating.

If we are to characterize what you may feel, we can list and explain some general symptoms of anxiety.  

If a person describes feeling an anxiety attack, they may be referring to emotional or psychological feelings such as: 

  • Feeling excessive or persistent worries about something
  • Feeling fear towards or about something 
  • Feeling that there are many thoughts in their mind or that their mind is racing
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate on something
  • Feeling nauseous or as if there are "butterflies in the stomach"
  • Feeling on edge or restless about something present or in anticipation

They may also be referring to physical sensations such as: 

  • Heart pounding
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating 
  • Muscle pains
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pains

It is also important to note that while panic attacks are generally not associated with fear-provoking cues, anxiety attacks may be brought on by specific fears, everyday situations, or big life events. 

Here are some examples: 

  • Phobia - such as the fear of iguanas (as used in the example) or fear of flying etc. 
  • Work-related matters - such as an upcoming project or even stressful work environment 
  • Social situations (also referred to as social phobia) - such as meeting new people, public speaking, and dating
  • Memories of traumatic experiences - this may be brought on by reminders or triggers of a traumatic event
  • Big life changes - big life events can sometimes be fear-provoking or overwhelming like getting married (or divorced)
  • School pressure - often associated with fear, such as fear of failing. 

As you can see from these examples, feelings of anxiousness can be in response to many different things, and the responses may vary from person to person. Therefore if we are to explain what an anxiety attack feels like, it may be fair to say that it can vary from person to person, but it will generally be within the realm of the common symptoms of anxiety as listed. 

Here it may also be helpful to view a snapshot of the differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack.

Panic attacks

  • Generally is not cued by stressors 
  • Occurs suddenly  
  • Usually very severe in nature
  • Intense physical symptoms

Anxiety attack 

  • Generally is cued by stressors 
  • May build gradually 
  • Mild, moderate or severe
  • Physical symptoms not as intense

What to Do If You Notice Symptoms

If you notice any of the symptoms of an anxiety attack, it will help you to work on managing those symptoms through relaxation techniques in the moment, and overall mental health management in the long run. It’s always important to take care of our health, both physical and mental. 

Here are some tips that may help you to manage feelings of anxiety: 

  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help; seeking professional help for mental health issues and concerns is never a bad idea. With anxiety, there are a variety of treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy and anxiety medication that can help you to identify and manage your anxiety on a day to day basis.
  • Look into self-help options; there are many self-help options that are available to help you manage feelings of anxiousness. People commonly look into self-help books, supplements, meditation, exercise, yoga, breathing techniques, family members, and support groups.

Summary

Anxiety is a common feeling that may be experienced in response to a perceived or unknown threat. While some anxiety is normal, there are times when the feelings are exacerbated. Many people who experience anxiety may describe having an "anxiety attack," and while there is no clinical definition of an anxiety attack, it is taken to mean that a person is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, which are very different from a panic attack. 

Once a person begins to experience those symptoms, it is always a good idea to work to manage said symptoms by learning to de-escalate anxiety attacks, seeking help from a professional, and working to improve overall mental health and well-being. 

Remember that anxiety can be managed and you are not alone, seek support whenever you need it. 

As you Prepare Your Mind, do so with knowledge of best practices and high hope for the relief that's to come.

Sources: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t10/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml 

https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181205/