Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/9/2021
Tightness in your chest, a racing heart, sudden sweating — that, “am I having a heart attack?” feeling. If you've experienced this in your daily life, there’s a chance you’ve had an anxiety attack in your past.
Believe it or not, dealing with anxiety disorder in adults is not uncommon. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 19.1 percent of all American adults are affected by some sort of anxiety disorder each year.
Like with most mental health issues, anxiety can vary in terms of type and severity. Some people with anxiety disorders may never experience an anxiety attack, while others may deal with them regularly.
Anxiety often brings on feelings of worry and tension. And when these feelings of anxiety intensify suddenly and bring with them physical anxiety symptoms, it’s considered an anxiety attack.
Anxiety attacks look different in everyone. But, general signs you’re having one include:
Feeling nervous or tense
An inability to relax
Worrying about the future
Many people use the words anxiety attack and panic attack interchangeably. And while they are similar, they’re not quite the same thing.
Panic is a specific type of anxiety disorder. There are actually five types of anxiety disorders. They are:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, if you’re struggling to control your anxiety more days than not over a period of six months, you may be dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder takes the occasional anxiety up quite a few notches, being characterized by excessive, persistent worry. But we’re not talking like every other day-type “excessive.”
We’re talking about spending more days than not worrying about things like impending natural disasters, developing a medical condition, your relationship ending, being fired from your job, etc. for a stretch of six months or more.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD involves recurrent, unwanted thoughts and compulsive behavior, such as repetitive handwashing, counting or checking.
Panic Disorder: People who deal with panic disorder experience unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear along with physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: This type of anxiety disorder develops after a traumatic event, such as violent assaults, surviving natural disasters, accidents or military combat.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Also called social phobia, this disorder is categorized by feeling extremely overwhelmed in social situations. It can be limited to very specific situations (like speaking in public) or be so severe that you feel anxiety in everyday situations, like any time you’re around other people.
With any of these, you may experience anxiety attacks. Panic attacks are more specific to panic disorder and can feel more intense. People with other types of anxiety disorders may feel panic at times and people with panic disorder may feel more general signs of anxiety or excessive anxiety.
An anxiety attack makes you feel off, but may not include severe symptoms. On the other hand, panic attacks may feel more visceral and overwhelming. Signs you’re having a panic attack include:
Chest or stomach side
If you feel four or more of these, it’s likely a panic attack.
The best way to make anxiety attacks disappear is to work on the root of the problem — the actual anxiety. These methods have been proven to help with overcoming anxiety.
Living a healthy life can help you feel good in all ways. More specifically, research has shown that working out can have a positive effect on mental health.
A 2013 review of animal studies explored the benefits of exercise and found that physical activities reduced levels of stress and anxiety and led to overall mood improvements.
Relaxation techniques like meditation may help, too. A 2014 study found that 20 minutes of mindful meditation can decrease anxiety by decreasing overall brain activity.
Furthermore, John Hopkins published findings from over 47 meditation studies with 3,515 patients and concluded that meditation may help people cope with anxiety and stress.
Meditation or the calm deep breathing done during medication can be great tools to use in the moment when you’re having an anxiety attack. It sounds silly, but one deep breath at a time may help — the research is there.
Psychotherapy is very often used to treat anxiety disorders — and with great success.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common. According to the American Psychiatric Association, CBT revolves around identifying patterns and behaviors that may lead to anxiety and using problem-solving skills to cope.
Exposure therapy has also been shown to help with GAD. Exposure therapy allows people to confront their fears directly, but in a safe and controlled environment.
And then there’s psychodynamic therapy, which focuses on past issues that may contribute to current feelings or dynamics. It involves a lot of reflection.
These are just a few of the many types of therapy available to help easy anxiety and deal with anxiety attacks.
You can ask a mental health professional which is right for you.
In some cases, a healthcare professional may suggest prescription anxiety medication as a way of dealing with anxiety.
Commonly prescribed medications for anxiety include antidepressants (SSRIs, SNRIs), beta blockers and benzodiazepines.
SSRIs are probably the most common. They work by preventing serotonin from being reabsorbed into neurons, making more serotonin available to improve transmission between neurons. This improves your mood.
A healthcare professional can give you their expert opinion in order to determine if any of these are right for you.
If you find yourself having anxiety or panic attacks, the first step should be reaching out to a healthcare professional to talk about your mental health conditions. This could be a primary care physician or a mental health professional.
Either person will be able to review your symptoms and give you next steps so that you can eventually conquer these attacks.
Talking to someone is just the first step in banishing these experiences and enjoying the quality of life that you deserve.