Experiencing an extreme state of anxiety can often be alarming, if not outright terrifying. It can be particularly distressing if you have never experienced anything like it before. You may be afraid because of the intense emotion and uncomfortable physical sensations which often occur simultaneously. You feel like you have no control, your body is physically reacting, and you’re frightened. You’re not sure what’s happening, and that makes things even worse. So, what is happening? In this post, we will walk you through the symptoms of anxiety attacks and panic attacks. We will help you to understand the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack and how to find professional help to manage anxiety and panic.
What is an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack is a heightened state of anxiety that is highly distressing and often so severe that it stops a person from doing anything else during that period of time. Anxiety attacks occur when a person’s level of fear, dread, nervousness, worry, and/or tension has built up until they reach a “breaking point”.
At that “breaking point”, a person’s prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for regulating our emotions and managing our behavioral impulses) is overwhelmed by the intensity of emotion and is unable to do its job. When the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed, a person can find themself unable to focus, concentrate, unable to regulate their emotions, and control their own behaviors.
What causes an anxiety attack?
While anxiety attacks can be caused by countless environmental stressors, anxiety is generally related to feeling a lack of power and control over one’s personal situation or the things a person experiences in their world. According to our Director of Psychotherapy, Ming Loong Teo, “People often experience anxiety over the things they feel that they are helpless and powerless over, they don’t have the fundamental knowledge to understand what is happening and articulate it, and/or they lack the coping skills to allow them to problem solve.”
Ming emphasizes this lack of control is a common theme for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That disadvantage could be the result of systemic racism, disability, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexuality, etc. Anxiety also is linked to genetic predisposition and can be directly related to intergenerational trauma. In general, anxiety is caused by not having control, and anxiety attacks are often experienced when a person has reached the limit of their ability to tolerate that which they are unable to control.
Anxiety Attack Symptoms
Anxiety attack symptoms can be different from person to person, but they can include:
- Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
- Change in blood pressure
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilating) and/or having shortness of breath
- Shaking or trembling
- Skin becoming cold or clammy
- Feeling nervous, restless, and/or tense
- Sense of impending dread, danger, and/or doom
- Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as indigestion, nausea, cramps, and other GI problems
- Tingling in the extremities (fingers and toes)
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, field of vision “whiting out” or “blacking out”, and even fainting
If you have experienced a combination of several of the above symptoms at the same time, then you may have experienced an anxiety attack or a panic attack.
Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are often very similar to one another, and the terms are often used interchangeably among people who are not mental health professionals. It is important, however, to note that they are not the same. Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks are sudden, and they often have no noticeable triggers or lead up. Anxiety attacks can be likened to a balloon being slowly filled with air until it explodes, whereas a panic attack is more like a balloon that spontaneously explodes with no visible explanation of how it happened.
If you’re not sure if you’ve experienced an anxiety attack vs. a panic attack, look back and see if you were feeling anxious, stressed, or irritable in the past day, week, or month. Was there a gradual build-up of discomfort, or did the attack seem sudden and out of nowhere? If it was sudden, then you may have experienced a panic attack.
Does having an anxiety attack mean you have an anxiety disorder?
First and foremost, we want to clarify that mental health disorder diagnoses are often fluid, and can change over time; particularly when it comes to anxiety. Anxiety is a normal and generally healthy part of our existence. Anxiety usually helps us to become aware of danger. It stirs our awareness to help us avoid harm and escape from dangerous situations.
To qualify as a “disorder”, those symptoms of anxiety must be recurrent, and they must cause some kind of functional impairment in your life. This usually means that because of your anxiety, you’re unable to function in ways that can negatively impact your relationships, your career, and other important areas of your life.
An anxiety attack by itself doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder. You may simply be going through some recent difficulties in your life. Maybe you’ve been feeling a more recent lack of control in one or more areas of your life. If you are having recurrent anxiety attacks or panic attacks, or worse, you have been struggling with them for years, then you may be living with an anxiety disorder or even a trauma-related disorder.
What are ways to prevent an anxiety attack?
If you’re looking for ways to prevent an anxiety attack, let’s go back to the cause: a lack of control. In order to help decrease your anxiety level, gaining control can help. And if that answer sounds broad, it’s because it is. To get to the real root of how you can prevent anxiety and anxiety attacks, then you deserve to dive into what you’re experiencing with a mental health provider.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be very helpful in identifying the thought patterns which lead to the emotions you experience related to anxiety. CBT can help you to better identify your emotions, cognitions, and behaviors which affect your day-to-day life. CBT can help you to reframe and expand upon the way you think, eliminate unhelpful or harmful ways of thinking and behaving, and even build coping skills to help you tackle the more difficult situations which occur in your life.
Through the work you will do in therapy, you will develop more insight into your emotions and behaviors, and how those emotions and behaviors may negatively affect you and the lives of others around you. Without that insight or without effective coping skills, it is possible that your anxiety may continue to increase in severity and frequency until you begin to regularly experience anxiety attacks and/or panic attacks.
With effective therapy, like CBT, you will be able to better recognize your anxiety when it is happening at the moment, and you can then apply the coping skills you have learned and/or other problem-solving skills to manage your emotions and your environment more effectively to regain a sense of control.
Other ways to manage your anxiety
While we at Mindful Health Solutions are huge fans of therapy, we also know that therapy isn’t the only solution within mental health care. Your mental health can also improve through:
- Practicing effective self-care
- Improving and better utilizing your social resources
- Making changes in your life
- Setting boundaries with yourself and with others in your life (like family, friends, coworkers, etc)
There are many ways in addition to the above things which can help. Therapy can help you to navigate the way to incorporate those things into your life in a way that makes sense to you and is congruent with who you are as a human being.
What you are experiencing is normal
Most importantly, we want you to know that what you are experiencing is normal. You are not defective, you are not “crazy”, nor are you weak. There is nothing wrong with seeking professional help when you feel like you are stuck or are unable to handle things on your own. Human beings were not meant to live in solitude and function without leaning on one another. Whether you had an anxiety attack vs. a panic attack, this experience is usually a sign from your body that it is time to do something about how you are feeling. You deserve to have power over your life, and it is a healthy and courageous decision to seek help to regain that power.
If you are struggling with anxiety, we want to help. We have a wide range of mental health services that are provided by experts in the field. We even offer virtual appointments! When you are ready to take the first step in your journey toward greater mental health, we will be ready to connect with you. We will be here to provide you with the support that you deserve.