Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you think you’ve experienced sudden onset anxiety, you’ve come to the right place.
Have you ever suddenly felt extremely anxious, stressed or as if the world was going to end in a certain situation? Or perhaps, with no warning or explanation, you feel like you have anxiety for no reason.
It’s normal to feel mild to moderate anxiety at certain moments in life, such as just before a job interview or a big date. But for some people, serious anxiety symptoms can occur at a moment’s notice, often with both physical and mental symptoms.
These symptoms are sometimes referred to as sudden onset anxiety, and they can have a significant negative impact on your life when left untreated.
The good news is that, like other forms of anxiety, feelings of anxiety that develop suddenly can often be treated with medication, therapy and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Below, we’ll explain what sudden onset anxiety is, as well as the symptoms you may notice if you’re prone to sudden anxiety attacks.
We’ll also talk about how you can cope with sudden onset anxiety, from simple tips you can use if you’re feeling anxious to options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) medication and lifestyle changes.
Sudden onset anxiety is a term often used to refer to panic disorder, an anxiety disorder involving sudden, unexpected panic attacks.
Panic attacks are sudden moments of intense anxiety, fear and loss of control. They can occur without warning and, unlike many other forms of anxiety, are often triggered even when there’s no danger or other triggering object or person present.
Most people experience panic attacks as part of panic disorder, but they can also affect those without anxiety or other mental health disorders.
Panic attacks can vary in severity. For some, they occur frequently in specific situations and may happen several times per day. For others, panic attacks occur rarely, with symptoms appearing once every few months.
During panic attacks, or sudden onset anxiety attacks, you may experience one or several of the following symptoms:
A sense that you’ve lost control of yourself
Feelings of impending doom or extreme danger
A rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations or chest pain
Sweating, chills, dizziness or a feeling of physical weakness
Trembling or tingling sensations throughout your body
Stomach pain, nausea or vomiting
Difficulty breathing normally
If you have panic disorder, these symptoms may occur at any time, even if there’s no reason to feel anxious or worried. After a panic attack, it’s common to experience feelings of worry about when the next attack might occur.
Panic attacks usually only last a few minutes or less, although it often feels as if the physical symptoms go on forever when an attack is occurring.
Experts aren’t aware of precisely what triggers panic attacks or what causes panic disorder to develop in certain people. However, research suggests panic attacks may work like “false alarms,” in which the body’s fight-or-flight response activates at the wrong moment.
Our guide to panic disorder goes into greater detail about the most common symptoms of panic attacks, as well as risk factors that may contribute to this condition.
When the symptoms of a panic attack develop suddenly, it can often feel impossible to get your thoughts, feelings and behaviors under control.
The good news is that panic disorder is treatable. By participating in psychotherapy and (if necessary) using medication to manage your symptoms, you can reduce the severity of panic disorder and get a greater degree of control over how you feel.
If you have panic attacks or sudden onset anxiety symptoms, the best thing you can do to learn how to cope with your symptoms is to talk to a mental health provider.
You can connect with a mental health specialist by talking to your primary care provider about a mental health referral or by using our online psychiatry service to connect with a provider from home to discuss your mental health concerns.
If you have frequent panic attacks, your mental health provider may diagnose you with a mental health condition such as panic disorder.
For many people, sudden onset anxiety symptoms caused by panic disorder can be treated with psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy).
Several types of therapy are commonly used to treat panic disorder, including cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying the ways of thinking and behaving that occur before and during each panic attack, then learning newer, healthier ways to react to these thoughts and feelings.
Exposure therapy involves directly confronting your worries and beliefs, including fears related to specific activities, people or environments.
Although talk therapy alone isn’t always enough to overcome panic attacks, it may reduce your symptom severity and make dealing with fear of fear — the anxiety that panic attacks can occur in the future — an easier process.
Our guide to therapy for treating anxiety goes into more detail about how these forms of therapy work, as well as the unique advantages of each approach to talk therapy.
Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders are often treated with medication. Taking medication can reduce the severity of anxiety, give you greater control over your thoughts and feelings, and help you to avoid excessive worrying about future panic attacks or anxious moments.
Several types of medication are currently used to treat anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder:
Antidepressants. These medications, which are typically used to treat depression, can also reduce the severity of anxiety. Common antidepressants for treating panic disorder include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Antidepressants are generally effective for anxiety, but they often take several weeks to start working and may cause side effects. Your mental health provider will work with you to select an antidepressant that works effectively with few or no side effects.
Beta-blockers. These medications work by slowing down your heart. They’re effective at controlling the physical symptoms of a panic attack, such as excessive sweating and an elevated heart rate but have less of an effect on psychological anxiety symptoms. Our guide to beta-blockers and anxiety goes into more detail about how this type of medication works for treating performance anxiety and panic attacks.
Benzodiazepines. These fast-acting medications treat anxiety and panic symptoms in just a few minutes, making them good for dealing with sudden onset anxiety. However, they can be habit-forming, with some people developing dependence. If you’re prescribed a benzodiazepine, your mental health provider may only provide a small amount of medication for use when needed.
It’s normal to try several different types of medication (or several medications within one class) before finding the right anxiety treatment for you. Be sure to closely follow your healthcare provider’s instructions, and use any medication you’re prescribed exactly as directed.
Our full guide to medications for anxiety has more information about the treatment options listed above, along with their potential side effects, interactions and more.
Making changes to your habits and daily life can make the symptoms of anxiety, including panic attacks, less severe.
Research has found that relaxation strategies, slowed breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and other approaches can help reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks, though the effectiveness of these techniques varies from person to person.
Studies have also found that certain substances, such as caffeine and nicotine, might increase your risk of experiencing anxiety and panic symptoms.
For example, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry found that consuming a large amount of caffeine each day induces panic attacks in many people with panic disorder.
The same review and meta-analysis found that caffeine can also induce anxiety in people who don’t suffer from panic disorder.
If you drink lots of coffee or energy drinks, scaling back your caffeine intake may help lower your risk of experiencing sudden onset anxiety symptoms. Likewise, giving up smoking might help reduce feelings of anxiety, all while improving your general health and lowering your risk of a heart attack, stroke or lung cancer.
Anxiety disorders are common medical conditions that affect tens of millions of adults across the United States every year.
If you have panic disorder, you may experience symptoms that develop with a sudden, dramatic onset. These panic attacks may happen even when no anxiety triggers are present, causing you to worry about when the next attack may occur.
If you think you may have panic disorder, or if you have other anxiety symptoms that develop on a rapid basis, getting help is crucial.
You can do this by reaching out to your primary care provider to ask for a mental health referral, scheduling an appointment with a mental health specialist in your area or accessing help online using our psychiatry service.
Anxiety is treatable, and taking action as soon as you notice symptoms developing is often key to feeling better and gaining control over your sudden onset anxiety symptoms.
Interested in learning more about anxiety treatments before you start? Our full guide to anxiety disorder treatments shares all of your options, from prescription medications for anxiety to talk therapy to self-care techniques.
Start your mental wellness journey today.