Everyone experiences anxiety (worry over a potential future event or its outcome) in some form or another. Anxiety, however, takes different forms, and people cope with various magnitudes of anxiety, ranging from normal experiences to anxiety disorders. When anxiety reaches a certain degree, symptoms of anxiety become so extreme that anxiety turns into an acute panic attack. By understanding the difference between generalized anxiety and these intense occurrences, you can answer the question, “What is an anxiety attack?”
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
The term “anxiety attack” is often used in place of the more clinical term “panic attack.” A panic (anxiety) attack occurs when anxiety becomes so intense it triggers an acute physical and emotional event. Panic attacks are so physically intense that sufferers often end up in the emergency room describing symptoms typically associated with a heart attack.
How to Recognize a Panic Attack: Signs and Symptoms
Individuals who have a full-blown panic attack will experience four or more signs or symptoms intensely. Other individuals suffer from what is referred to as “limited-symptom panic attacks.” These individuals experience fewer than four of the following physical and emotional symptoms.
- Pounding heart, accelerated heart rate or palpitations
- Chest pain, discomfort or feelings of pressure
- Shaking or trembling
- Choking sensation or feeling of throat closing
- Shortness of breath or sensation of being smothered
- Nausea, abdominal pain, cramping or feeling of a knot in the stomach
- Feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
- Hot flashes or chills
- Numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
- De-realization (feeling of unreality described as a dream-like state)
- Depersonalization (feeling detached from oneself, emotions or feeling separate from reality)
- A sense of impending doom, gloom and danger
- Overwhelming fear
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Urgency to escape
As displayed by this exhaustive list of signs and symptoms, panic attacks are extremely frightening events and are very different from elevated feelings of anxiety or general anxiety.
Panic attacks differ from general feelings of anxiety due to their intense nature and relatively short duration; attacks usually last for only about ten minutes. Individuals who suffer from panic attacks experience intense physical and emotional symptoms, which often lead them to believe they are dying. Intensely frightening, panic attacks heighten sensations of general anxiety, as sufferers fear triggering and going through another episode.
What Causes a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks often coincide with situations that cause emotional distress, such as a job interview, a public speaking event, a divorce or the loss of a loved one. Panic attacks, however, do not always occur during stressful or emotional moments; they sometimes occur seemingly out of the blue, when sufferers feel calm and at ease.
Other conditions can also trigger panic attacks, such as:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Mitral Valve Prolapse
- Excessive Stimulant Use
- Medication Withdrawal
Coping with Stress and Reducing Incidents
Thankfully, there are several strategies for coping with anxiety and reducing the frequency of and/or preventing panic and anxiety attacks. Panic attacks are treated with a combination of medication, therapy and additional self-help strategies (such as meditation and exercise).
By sticking with a regular plan and taking all medications as prescribed, patients overcome anxiety and can return to living normal lives.