The symptoms can come suddenly and feel terrifying. Your heart is pounding rapidly. You’re nauseous and shaking. The room spins. You can’t breathe.
Symptoms like these can be particularly scary because they might be related to a long-term medical issue, like a heart condition, or might be merely an anxiety attack, which is highly treatable. The more you know about anxiety attacks, the more easily you can prevent that potentially scary moment where you’re sure something worse is happening to you.
Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks – what’s the difference?
This is a good question with a not-quite-clear-cut answer. Technically, according to the Calm Clinic, which specializes in anxiety, there is a difference: anxiety attacks are weaker, milder versions of panic attacks. Traditionally, Calm Clinic explains, “panic attack” was the term used among medical professionals for the sudden experience of the symptoms I described above in the first paragraph (when unexplained by any other medical condition), while “anxiety attack” was used to describe periods in life of higher anxiety than a person normally faces.
However, in everyday life, most people use the terms interchangeably, so if you hear someone talking about having “anxiety attacks” there’s a good chance that they’re referring to the same experience as a “panic attack.”
How do I know if I’m having an anxiety attack?
There’s a long list of possible signs of an anxiety attack, the most common of which include:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Chills and/or heat flashes
- Tingling sensation of the skin and/or numbness
- Feeling like you’re having an out-of-body experience as if you’re watching yourself
- Feelings of doom/impending death/losing control
- Intense fear
The last few items on this list might sound pretty individualized and personal, like feelings that some people might have during an anxiety attack, but not everyone. But even these more emotional-based reactions are extremely common across people who have anxiety attacks; these feelings are not really reactions to the attack, but part of the attack itself.
You certainly don’t need to be having all of these symptoms at once to qualify as having an anxiety attack. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, doctors generally look for the presence of at least 4 of these signs in order for an episode to qualify as an anxiety attack.
You might be noticing in this description that the signs of an anxiety attack sound a lot like the signs of a heart attack.
If so, you’d be absolutely right, and that’s part of the problem. From a biological standpoint, the reactions your body has to anxiety – increased heart rate, sweating, faster breathing, for instance – are good and helpful for you. They make you able to run away quickly or fight in dangerous situations.
But when your body is producing these symptoms not in result to a specific dangerous threat, like a bear running at you in the woods, and is instead producing these symptoms just because of the stress in your life, it can cause you to really freak out. Lots of people think something is going wrong with their heart, and that causes them to hyperventilate, which makes many of the symptoms even worse.
So what do I do about anxiety attacks?
There are short term and long term answers to this question:
Short term: In the actual moment of an anxiety attack, the symptoms will pass after several minutes, but there are things you can do to help them pass faster.
You can resist the temptation to start taking quick, gasping, huge breaths. This could lead to hyperventilation which actually will worsen the symptoms. Instead, try to make your breathing slower.
You can also try to divert your attention from the attack. Call someone on the phone and try to force yourself to concentrate on the phone call rather than your symptoms. Walk around instead of standing still or sitting down. Anything you can do to distract yourself from the panicky feelings is better than concentrating on them, getting even more scared, and therefore making the symptoms worse.
Long term: Prevent, prevent, prevent!
Once an anxiety attack is underway, you can slow it down and make the symptoms less severe, but you do just have to wait until it passes, so ultimately you’re much better off preventing it before it happens. The only way to do this is to prevent big stockpiles of anxiety from building up in your life. When you notice that stressors seem to be ramping up, don’t just bottle them in and deal with it. Talk to someone who you can trust about them. Take time out to do things for yourself. Consult a mental health professional about strategies for decreasing stress. Taking steps like these are the only way to work against the buildup of stress that can manifest as an anxiety attack.
Finally, if these symptoms sound familiar to you and you think you’ve experienced anxiety attacks before, remember that you should consult your primary care physician just to make sure that the symptoms aren’t related to a different health condition that you should not be ignoring.
Feeling like you might have experienced an anxiety attack before or might in the future if things don’t change? If you want to talk more about what changes you can make to prevent them or stop them from happening again, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult .