Anxiety Attacks and Symptoms Illustration | What are they and What Causes

Anxiety Attacks and Symptoms: What Are They and What Are the Causes?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 40 million adults in the US (ages 18 yrs or older) are affected by an anxiety disorder. While anxiety is our body’s natural response when it senses danger or a threat, it can become an issue when that feeling never goes away. As these feelings intensify, one may experience an anxiety attack (different from a panic attack).   

What’s an Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack is not a formal, clinical term listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th edition (aka DSM-5). However, it is a term used by the general public to describe the anxious responses one may feel when experiencing an anxiety disorder. An anxiety attack usually involves an intense feeling of fear and anxiety, and they generally occur after facing a clear trigger.

What Are 5 Common Types of Anxiety?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the five common types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): People with GAD often feel excessive worry or anxiety (without a specific cause) for most days of the week for at least 6 months. People may feel restless, exhausted, irritable, have muscle tension, sleep issues, or concentration problems. These feelings may also impact someone in various areas of their life- such as school, social interactions, or work.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): People with OCD may experience recurring and obsessive thoughts- and/or compulsive, repetitive behaviors. Engaging in these cycles may provide temporary relief. However, not performing these rituals lead to extreme stress and anxiety. These obsessions may even intensify and interfere with one’s daily life.
  • Panic Disorder:Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder where unexpected and frequent episodes of intense fear occur alongside physical symptoms. These symptoms may include chest pain, shortness of breath, immense distress, dizziness, heart palpitations, etc. Panic disorders can impact a person’s life, especially if they constantly worry about when the next attack will happen- or if they put all their energy into trying to avoid an attack.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):People who have gone through/seen a traumatic event (and have trouble healing from that experience) often develop PTSD. One may experience flashbacks or try to avoid situations that remind them of their trauma (which can lead to feelings of intense fear or anxiety).
  • Phobia Related Disorders:People with a phobia experience intense fear or aversion to specific objects or situations. While it is perfectly reasonable to feel fear, with phobias, the fear people experience can often feel out of control than what the situation calls for. Some people may have specific phobias (aka simple phobias), which means that they feel intense anxiety towards specific objects or situations- such as flying, heights, blood, injections, etc.

There is also social anxiety disorder (aka social phobia). Individuals may feel intense fear or anxiety (or excessive self-consciousness) towards social/performance situations. This phobia can impact someone’s social life, especially if they always try to avoid any/all social situations.

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What Are Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks?

The symptoms one feels with anxiety intensify over a period of time and occur when someone feels excessive worry over some potential danger (whether it be real or perceived). Symptoms can occur at any time in your life (even childhood) and continue onwards. Some anxiety attack symptoms may include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
  • Have a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble sleeping and or restlessness
  • GI problems
  • An overwhelming sense of worry
  • Having the urge to avoid anything that triggers anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle tensions
  • Irritability 

Anxiety and Stress | Photo of a Woman with Anxiety Holding Facesource

How Long Do Anxiety Attacks Last?

As we will discuss more below, anxiety attacks are generally less intense than panic attacks. However, they are more persistent over a prolonged period. Some attacks may persist for days, weeks, or months. 

Can Anxiety Be Cured?

There is no cure for anxiety in general- considering that it’s the body’s natural response to stress. However, there are treatments for those with anxiety disorders to help keep their anxiety from becoming a huge problem. Eventually, one can learn how to control the situation and not allow fear to control their life. Treatment for anxiety attacks can include psychotherapy, medication, or a mixture of both.


Psychotherapy involves you and a therapist working together to help reduce your anxiety symptoms. The main focus is usually around changing the directions of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior associated with anxiety. The two most common types of psychotherapy used are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

  • Cognitive behavior therapy helps someone by identifying the negative thought patterns that occur alongside feelings of anxiety. From there, the focus shifts to challenging these disordered thoughts and then neutralizing them.
  • Meanwhile, exposure therapy focuses on gradually confronting head-on the fears underlying your anxiety disorder. By continuously encountering the object/situation that triggers your anxiety, you eventually gain confidence and learn how to manage the situation and your symptoms.

Medication for Anxiety Attacks

Anti-anxiety medication can help relieve and reduce (not cure) your symptoms. Some medications your healthcare provider may prescribe you are:

  • Benzodiazepines: This includes medications such as Xanax and Valium.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): This includes medication such as Lexapro and Zoloft.
  • Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): This includes medications such as Effexor XR and Cymbalta.

You should consult with your healthcare provider to discuss what medication, medication dose, and treatment plan best suit you. Consulting with an expert ensures that you are receiving a treatment plan that fits your needs and medical situation. We also encourage you to talk with your doctor about any questions or concerns you have about any of the treatment options.  

How Do I Calm Myself Down from Anxiety?

There are also various coping strategies one can learn to help control anxiety attacks. Some of these include:

  • Getting Adequate Sleep: The amount of sleep you get has a significant impact on how you feel both mentally and physically. Lack of sleep can often worsen feelings of anxiety.
  • Practice Deep Breathing: Anxiety attacks often cause heart palpitations and shallow breathing. Therefore, learning and practicing deep breathing techniques can help calm your breathing and heart rate when feeling extreme stress/anxiety/fear.
  • Meditating: Meditating is another great way to learn how to focus on your breathing and ground yourself in the present moment. To help you get started, you may want to download a mediations app or view a couple of videos.
  • Regular Exercise: Exercise is proven to help your physical and mental health. Engaging in exercise can also help reduce anxiety and raise your endorphin levels (your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters).
  • Finding Support: Facing feelings of anxiety alone can be challenging. Try finding support from your friends and family. You could also reach out and count an anxiety support group. Or you can also work on finding various healthcare providers and build your mental support group. By working with a team of experts, you can find the right treatment plan- and work towards learning coping skills and significantly reducing your anxiety. 

What Is the 3-3 -3 Rule for Anxiety?

The 3-3-3 rule is another excellent coping skill one can learn to help calm themselves down when they sense that an anxiety attack is coming. This method can help us focus on the present moment, leave behind negative emotions, and calm our racing thoughts. To follow the 3-3-3 rule you:

  • Name three things you see
  • Name three sounds you hear
  • Move three parts of your body- such as your fingers, shoulders, and then feet

What Conditions Are Mistaken for Anxiety?

The symptoms one experiences in other medical conditions may sometimes mimic symptoms of anxiety (such as rapid heart rate, sweating, difficulty sleeping, nausea, or difficulty breathing). Or feelings of anxiety may result from hormones rather than mental health. Some conditions that may often lead to misdiagnoses include:

  • Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS)
  • Asthma
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Diabetes
  • Heart Problems
  • Endometriosis
  • Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia (IST)
  • Lyme Disease
  • Adrenal Insufficiency
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Ankylosing Spondylitis
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

The term “panic attacks” is also often used when referring to anxiety attacks. However, panic attacks and anxiety attacks have different characteristics. Unlike the gradual build-up of anxiety attacks, panic attacks are sudden and abrupt as a surge of intense fear/discomfort overtakes a person. As stated in the DSM-5, panic attacks usually last up to 10 minutes (although some may last longer). Meanwhile, an anxiety attack can last for months. Panic attacks may also occur if you suffer from a panic disorder- but they can also occur within other psychiatric disorders.  

What Are Signs of a Panic Attack?

As discussed above, panic attacks often involve a sudden and intense feeling of fear, terror, or discomfort. They usually occur very suddenly and without an obvious, immediate trigger. The symptoms can be very severe and intense that they can severely disrupt someone’s life. Here are the following symptoms the DSM-5 attribute to panic attacks:

Possible Mental Symptoms:

  • feelings of unreality (derealization)
  • Feeling of detachment from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying

Possible Physical Symptoms: 

  • chest pain
  • Chills or hot sensations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Choking feeling
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Heart palpitations, pounding heart, accelerated heart rate
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Tremblings or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Overall, anxiety and panic attacks can profoundly affect a person’s life. If you feel like you are stuck in a cycle of intense worry (or experience a sudden onslaught feeling of fear), we encourage you to meet with your healthcare provider to try and develop a treatment plan that will best suit your needs. If you would like, you could also download the Febo app to keep track of any symptoms or sleep issues you may want to share with your doctor. Know that you are not alone and that there are many resources out there for you to find the help you need.


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