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Anxiety Attacks: Understanding, Coping, and Treatment

Trigger warning: This article discusses anxiety attacks and their symptoms, which may be upsetting or triggering for some readers.

An anxiety attack is a period whereby a person is suddenly, sometimes without warning, debilitated by feelings of intense anxiety and fear. For the sufferer, it can be a very terrifying experience, even though they are unaware that their symptoms are part of the body’s natural mechanism called ‘fight-or-flight’.

How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

Every time a person enters a stressful situation, he/she has at some point to be very near to having an anxiety attack, but may not have even realized it. In fact, it is a natural instinctive response to stressful circumstances – the ‘fight or flight’ instinct.

Some people can actually benefit from this, which results in better performance or in the case of soldiers, the instinctive knowledge of when to stay and fight and when to retreat. However, there are those among us who find themselves experiencing more than just basic instinctive feelings, but heightened and over-exaggerated responses that can become debilitating and interfere in their very lives.

Anxiety attacks can become a terrifying moment in time for the first-timer and even worse for those who have battled it for years without getting medical help.

What does an anxiety attack feel like

The usual symptoms suffered during an anxiety attack include a raging heartbeat, difficulty breathing, hyperventilating, paralyzing terror, dizziness, light-headedness, nausea, trembling, sweating, shaking, choking, chest pains, hot flashes, sudden chills, tingling fingers or toes, fear that you are losing your mind or dying. 

A person may experience all, or some, of these symptoms during a panic attack. Different people will experience the symptoms to varying degrees.

As a person becomes accustomed to anxiety attacks, that person learns to overcompensate for any minor change in their bodily reactions. As a result, they end up with more anxiety attacks because the body’s nervous system is quickly activated and produces more adrenaline than normal.

The difference between an anxiety attack and other types of anxiety disorders is that it is sudden and random. However, unlike other anxiety disorders, an anxiety attack is not a mental illness, but a chemical reaction combined with physical symptoms as a result of a shock or fear. 

Many people suffer from an anxiety attack at some point in their lives. These people may never have had another one again, but once they had one they are now predisposed to have further ones.

How long do anxiety attacks last

Anxiety attacks can last anywhere from one to ten minutes. However, there have been reports of these attacks lasting up to half a day. The most severe form can come in waves, lasting hours and ending with an intense need to sleep from exhaustion. In rare cases, anxiety attacks can occur with little time in between and may appear to last for days.

Generally speaking, anxiety attacks are found in families. Interestingly, the first line of attacks can come from major events, loss, or even the use of specific medications and if not treated, the pattern of behavior can influence and cause anxiety attacks in loved ones and others.

Anxiety attacks may occur when the body’s ‘fight or flight’ reaction is triggered without there being any actual danger. Unfortunately, the exact cause of anxiety attacks is not known at this time, though some scientists think that bereavement, physical illness, stress, and even certain medications can be contributing factors.

Though there are many causes for anxiety attacks, it is treatable with varied therapies and medications. Interestingly enough, doctors prefer to run a series of tests for things like hypoglycemia, excessive caffeine/nicotine use, and hyperthyroidism before recommending any treatments because these conditions can provoke and trigger anxiety attacks.

Anxiety Attacks Signs & Symptoms

If you have never had the displeasure of suffering an anxiety attack then it can be simply described as an intense feeling of unease or even butterflies in the stomach with a racing heartbeat. Ever had sweaty hands or the jitters before an interview and felt like you had to get out of there quickly?

It is of course perfectly normal to feel these emotions and levels of anxiety, but when these impose on life, causing the person to believe that they are dying then something is wrong.

Across the Western world, it is considered that 1 in 10 will experience this disruptive attack at some time during their lifetime. Even more of those will have repeated episodes. However, anxiety attacks become abnormal when they include other psychiatric illnesses or the following:
  • Anxiety attacks occur even when nothing stressful has or is happening
  • Anxiety attacks debilitate normal daily activities, including work and the ability to socialize
  • Anxiety attacks become severe and unbearable and last more than one day
These symptoms can be set off when electrical messages from the brain go to varied parts of the body, readying it for ‘fight or flight with no just cause or reason. The lungs and the heart begin to react to this by pumping blood and oxygen throughout the body to enable it to respond faster and the brain releases large doses of adrenaline, an energy booster and stimulant to let the body take on battle speed or marathon speed.

Unfortunately, the following symptoms occur as a result of this pumping, oxygenation, and battle/marathon speed increase:
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pains/discomfort.
  • Rapid/increased/irregular heartbeat/palpitations
  • Chest pain and tightening
  • Inability to breathe in or out properly
  • Dizziness
  • Inability to swallow properly
  • Dry mouth
  • Frequent urination
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Lack of concentration
  • Inability to maintain self-control
  • The feeling of being unreal
  • Fear of going crazy
If the anxiety is sufficient to be severe, the symptoms will come in waves and gradually increase, peaking at anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 days. These severe symptoms include:
  • Increasing tension
  • Chest pains/discomfort/palpitations
  • Quickening heartbeat
  • Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Hot flushes
  • Shaking
  • Choking/smothering feelings
  • Increased sensation of the inability to breathe
  • Nausea
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Abdominal discomfort or distress
  • Dizziness
  • Light headed feelings
  • Fainting
  • Depersonalization
  • Thinking that one is dying
  • The feeling of being crazy
  • Complete loss of personal self-control
  • The feeling of dying, losing mind, or “going crazy”
It is critical to note that some of the anxiety attack symptoms may also be signs of heart attacks and should be dealt with immediately by a doctor, and without a medical opinion it is impossible to distinguish between the two.

Common Types of Anxiety Attacks

There are different types of anxiety attacks; each one is attributed to a specific anxiety disorder (such as generalized anxiety disorder or GAD, obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, panic disorder/panic attacks, phobias, separation anxiety, and social phobia/anxiety.

  Learn more: Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety attacks triggered when suffering from GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) can be due to constant fears and worries about daily activities or continued feelings that a bad event may occur. This disorder can trigger the worst of anxiety attacks because the patient is suffering from worry and fear almost all the time while dealing with physical afflictions like fatigue, upset stomachs, and headaches.

Anxiety attacks triggered when suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can be due to the impossibility of controlling or stopping behaviors or thoughts. These thoughts become stressful to the point of obsession, so much so that the constant concerns cause an attack or not acting to prevent something can also cause an anxiety attack.

When an individual is suffering from panic disorder, the subsequent anxiety attacks can be triggered again and again by attacks lasting as long as thirty-plus minutes and may be accompanied with or without agoraphobia (fear of being stuck somewhere where getting assistance or escaping would be hard during an anxiety attack). Most people in this situation will avoid enclosed spaces or public places.

An individual who suffers from a phobia or extreme fear may go to extraordinary measures to avoid situations and things that trigger their fears. However, the anxiety from attempting to avoid these situations, and the situations themselves if they cannot be avoided, may trigger anxiety attacks fueled by irrational fears. While these fears pose no real danger in reality, they can cause extreme shock in the individual's mind.

Anxiety attacks can become a part of separation anxiety and are most especially experienced by children when separated from their parents or far from home. These types of cases are quite commonly seen in the playground with young children who are starting school for the first time – a child in what appears to be hysterical floods of tears and gasping. However, this type of anxiety attack should disappear as the child gets older and gets used to the process of separation and return. If not so, the child could be suffering from separation anxiety disorder.

Anxiety attacks are most commonly found with social anxiety disorder or social phobia. An attack can easily be triggered by an intense fear of public humiliation, embarrassment, ridicule, and negativity from other people, especially those they don’t even know. The attacks may vary in length and even be the result of an unnatural level of shyness. 

In the case where severe anxiety attacks may occur, patients usually avoid situations and any type of socialization possible, even isolating themselves from others over long periods of time. The milder form of this can be classified as stage fright and the attacks from these can vary according to the trauma felt by the patient.

Though anxiety attacks vary in severity, length, and intensity, they are typically triggered by certain fears, concerns, stresses, and other anxieties attributed to an anxiety disorder. 

In some cases, anxiety attacks are so mild that most people do not even recognize them as a problem, considering them just a normal reaction to a stressful situation. In other cases, the attacks are so severe that they can last for days, with their intensity fluctuating in a wave-like manner, increasing and decreasing until they reach a peak near the end of the attacks.

In severe cases, it becomes necessary for the patient to receive medical intervention. They may have stopped functioning in their everyday lives, are unable to enjoy life, cannot tolerate social interactions, and live in constant fear without good justification.

Anxiety Attack Causes: What triggers an Anxiety Attack

Many people suffer from anxiety attacks at one time or another. For some, the experience is a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime occurrence. For others, the attacks become frequent, interfering with daily activities and affecting their quality of life. In these instances, identifying the cause of the anxiety attacks may be the first step in alleviating or minimizing them. However, finding a specific cause may be easier said than done.

Are Anxiety Attacks Hereditary: Does anxiety run in families?

While anxiety attacks do seem to run in some families, heredity cannot be chalked up as the only anxiety attack cause. However, if you have a close family member who suffers from anxiety or anxiety disorder, there is a higher risk for you as well. Another anxiety attack cause appears to be a particularly stressful, life-changing event like graduating from school, getting married, losing someone close to you, or experiencing a divorce.

Physical Causes of Anxiety Attack

There are also physical causes of anxiety attacks, which can include medical conditions or medications you might be taking. Such causes might include a heart condition like mitral valve prolapse, hypoglycemia, or hyperthyroidism. 

Certain medications can also be a contributing factor to anxiety attacks. This is not a common side effect, but if you experience anxiety attacks after starting a new medication, talk to your doctor. They can help you determine if the medication is the cause and recommend alternative options if needed.

Physiological Causes of Anxiety Attack

There may also be a physiological cause of anxiety attacks related to the functioning of certain parts of the brain. The fight-or-flight response, which we experience during extremely stressful events like accidents or attacks, seems to be overactive in those who suffer from regular anxiety attacks. However, no one knows why this occurs in some people and not in others.

By understanding how to identify an anxiety attack cause, you can begin the process of controlling these episodes to ensure they don’t disrupt your life. Knowing that a particularly stressful event or a family history of the problem could increase your chances of experiencing these episodes will make you more aware of the problem so that you can see your doctor at the first sign of a problem.

The Common Causes of Anxiety Attacks in Children

While most people believe that children normally don’t get stressed, anxious, or worry about anything, this doesn’t mean that they can’t suffer from anxiety attacks. Children, especially those who are often subjected to stressful situations, also experience bouts of anxiety.

The causes of child anxiety attacks are pretty much the same as those for adults and are categorized into three main groups: genetics and early childhood learning, brain biochemistry, and the fight-or-flight mechanism.
  • Genetics and Early Childhood Learning. Studies have shown that anxiety disorders run in the family. Children with parents or close relatives who suffer from bouts of anxiety attacks are likely to develop the same symptoms as they grow.
  • Brain Biochemistry. Serotonin and dopamine are two main brain neurotransmitters that affect the thoughts and feelings of a person. When an imbalance of these two neurotransmitters occurs, the person feels anxious and depressed. Chemical imbalance may be due to a child suddenly being subjected to a stressful environment.
  • Fight or Flight Mechanism. When children find themselves in a stressful or threatening situation, they either defend themselves or escape from the situation. The body reacts to it and develops physical symptoms such as increased heartbeat, shortness of breath, and sweating.
While these are the three main causes of anxiety attacks as explained by science, below are some other everyday situations that have been observed to lead to bouts of anxiety attacks in children.
  • Changes in Lifestyle. Children feel safe and comfortable in activities and situations that they’ve gotten used to and get stressed and anxious when their lifestyle is suddenly changed. If they can’t quickly adapt to the change, they tend to develop the symptoms of anxiety attacks.
  • Stressful Situations and Events. The reasons why stressful events and situations can cause anxiety attacks have been discussed by health experts. Stressful situations and events in children often include peer pressure and school problems. Children who are also constantly bullied by their siblings, friends and playmates also develop anxiety attacks, as well as those who live in an abusive home.
  • Separation Anxiety. Children who have gotten used to the safety and comfort of their parents and home tend to develop a fear of being away from such comfort zones. This behavior is often observed in children who are old enough to go to school. They come up with reasons not to go to school, and their reasons may include stomach pain, dizziness, toothache, and headache.
Child anxiety attacks should be a big concern among parents. It needs to be diagnosed early and treated immediately to keep it from exacerbating and persisting throughout their children’s lifetime. Anxiety attacks can also affect children’s overall personality and behavior. If left untreated, it can develop into a more serious condition called anxiety disorder.

The advancement of the world has made our daily lives much more hectic; balancing work and home responsibilities has indeed become a challenge. The seemingly simple task of caring for our children has now become a responsibility so significant that it has the tendency to push our stress levels to the limit. Factors like these elevate stress levels, which need to be controlled to prevent anxiety attacks in our children.

Anxiety Attack Help: Stop Anxiety Attacks

How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

Setting the Goal

The ability to live a life free from stress is the ultimate goal, as stress is a major contributor that can trigger the onset of anxiety and panic attacks, which can consequently be disastrous for a person’s life. Preventing panic attacks and anxiety definitely needs a lot of attention and has to be considered seriously, as their onset can sometimes be unbearable and very discomforting at the least.

The people most likely to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks are classified as Type-A individuals, and as such, they are also the group most in need of solutions for stopping anxiety and panic attacks. People of this type tend to have perfectionist traits in every task they do, and therefore, they have a tendency to be more stressed than other types of people.

The ability to deal with stress adequately can help in stopping anxiety and panic attacks, and this may require non-complicated methods such as performing simple routines and exercises, or even meditation and deep breathing to bring down the stress levels, thereby preventing anxiety and stress.

When stress sets in, you can quite simply put your hand over your stomach and breathe deeply; this will allow your stress to start flowing out, making you less likely to suffer from a panic attack or anxiety.

Another method of possibly stopping anxiety and panic attacks is by going outside of the home or office, taking a short walk, and getting some fresh air. A brisk walk or jogging for around twenty minutes each day helps ensure that endorphins are released, thus reducing stress levels and allowing you to prevent anxiety and panic attacks.

Similarly, listening to gentle music such as classical can also help in controlling blood pressure, in addition to calming you down.

For those who suffer from elevated levels of anxiety that in turn cause a panic attack, the best thing for such people would be to learn about techniques to deal with anxiety and panic attacks; some of these techniques are simple and require nothing more than nasal breathing, while others involve learning to relax the muscles.

The best way of stopping anxiety attacks is to identify the causes, know the origins, and then seek professional advice. Stress is a major cause that must be dealt with early and effectively.

Steps You Can Take to Stop Anxiety Attacks

If your problem is a mild one, you can stop anxiety and anxiety attacks without the help of a psychotherapist. One of the most basic but practical techniques you can use to stop having anxiety attacks or reduce their effects is to learn how to breathe correctly. Place your hands on the top of your stomach and gently press down on it as you breathe in and out, to help yourself to gradually calm down.

Another technique that you can use to stop having anxiety attacks is to keep telling yourself positive things. For example, if during the onset of an attack, you repeat an encouraging or positive phrase such as “There is absolutely nothing to fear,” it may help you.

If your anxiety attacks become more severe over time, or if you feel you need support to help overcome your illness, contact a psychotherapist who can help you learn more advanced techniques that you can use to counter the problem.

How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

If learning how to stop an anxiety attack were an easy process, chances are that nobody would have more than one or two in their lifetime. The truth is that some people never learn how to stop an anxiety attack because they do not take the time to figure out what triggers them in the first place.

We all are different and have different life experiences. Therefore we are inclined to react differently to any given situation. Something that triggers an anxiety attack in one individual may have no effect on another, and vice versa.

Find the Trigger

A good psychotherapist can help you learn how to stop an anxiety attack by identifying its actual causes and training you to react differently. If you can't afford regular sessions with a psychotherapist, don't worry. With some tenacity, you can learn how to stop an anxiety attack on your own.

The first step in learning how to stop an anxiety attack is to think back on previous occasions when you have had one. You need to figure out where you were, what you were doing, and what you were thinking and feeling right before you had the attack. Hopefully, a pattern will begin to emerge that provides clues as to what could be causing your anxiety attacks.

Change Your Reaction

There is more to learning how to stop an anxiety attack than simply identifying what triggers them. It will be of no use knowing what causes your attacks if you continue to react to them in the same way.

Let us suppose that you have figured out that coming into contact with big, fierce-looking dogs is causing your anxiety attacks. In such a case, you need to change the way of responding or reacting if you are to stop having the attacks.

For example, instead of getting anxious and hurriedly crossing the street to avoid the dog you could try walking past it at a distance while telling yourself that you are not scared. On subsequent encounters with dogs, walk past it at a slightly nearer distance, while reminding yourself that there is absolutely nothing to fear so long as you do not allow yourself to feel frightened.

Don’t Expect Miracles

Learning how to stop an anxiety attack is not a simple process. It requires time, patience, and determination. If you want to stop having anxiety attacks you cannot give up when you encounter a setback.

When you feel the need for courage or support, remember that you are not the only person who is trying to overcome the problem of anxiety attacks; there are millions of others in the exact same situation. Furthermore, there are numerous online support groups you can join in order to interact with other anxiety attack sufferers.

There is no quick fix to enable you to stop a panic attack right away. Learning to control your anxiety takes considerable effort and time.

Avoidance Will Not Help

If you give it some thought, you should be able to determine exactly what triggers your anxiety. For example, if having to interact with strangers makes you feel very anxious, you could make a point of avoiding people that you don’t know so that you wouldn’t be forced to interact with them. 

However, bypassing dealing with the problem of your awkwardness around strangers would not help you in the long run to stop your anxiety attack problem. In fact, avoiding strangers and giving in to your fears would effectively stop you from being able to enjoy a normal, healthy life.

Face Your Fears

Though it may sound horrifying to any sufferer, the only effective way to stop anxiety and panic attacks is to gradually put yourself into situations in which you are forced to deal with your fears. The key to the process is to expose yourself to the thing that triggers your attacks gradually. For example, the agoraphobic could begin by making the effort to walk around in his backyard for a minute or two.

In the process of enabling yourself to stop anxiety and panic attacks by facing your fears, it is important to ride the feeling out while at the same time acknowledging that the fear is temporary and will not do you any real harm. 

It might be helpful to find something that distracts you from the situation so that you are focusing on something other than your fear. For example, you may try an exercise such as counting backward from hundred to zero.

    Anxiety Attack Treatment

    If anxiety attacks are interfering with your daily life, seeking professional help is crucial. Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to depression, unhealthy habits, and chronic anxiety [Ref.: National Institute of Mental Health. (2023, February 15)]. Fortunately, there are several effective treatment options available.

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

    Studies have shown that CBT is a successful treatment for anxiety disorders [Ref.: Hofmann, S. G., Aslan, M., & Cuijpers, P. (2019). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis]. 

    CBT and Group CBT help patients identify and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety. Through CBT and GCBT, individuals can develop coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and improve their overall well-being.


    For some people, medication may be recommended alongside therapy, particularly if anxiety symptoms are severe. A doctor will determine the most appropriate medication based on your individual needs. Here's an overview of some common medications used for anxiety:

    Antidepressants: While primarily used for depression, certain antidepressants can also be effective in managing anxiety symptoms. These medications typically start at a low dose and are gradually increased as needed. It's important to note that some antidepressants may interact with other medications or certain foods, so be sure to discuss this with your doctor.

    Anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines):  These medications can provide faster relief from anxiety symptoms compared to antidepressants. Common examples include Lorazepam and Alprazolam, which are also used for General Anxiety Disorder. It's important to be aware that benzodiazepines can be habit-forming, so they are typically prescribed for short-term use.

    Beta-blockers:  Beta-blockers primarily target physical symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling and sweating. Propranolol is a common beta-blocker used to manage these symptoms. However, beta-blockers are not recommended for individuals with certain medical conditions like asthma or diabetes, as they may worsen symptoms.

    Potential Side Effects of Medication:

    All medications can have side effects. For anxiety medications, these may include dizziness, blurred vision, drowsiness, nausea, upset stomach, nervousness, headaches, nightmares, trouble sleeping, or light-headedness.  Be sure to discuss any potential side effects with your doctor.

    Alternative and Complementary Treatments

    Some people prefer to avoid traditional medications or may not find them effective. There are alternative and complementary treatments available that may help manage anxiety symptoms. These approaches should be discussed with a doctor before starting, as some may interact with medications or have other side effects. Here are some examples:
    Important Considerations: These therapies may not work for everyone, and some may require professional guidance or supervision.

    Although these therapies can benefit some people, they shouldn't replace professional medical advice. If you are considering alternative or complementary treatments, be sure to talk to your doctor first.


    Stressful situations are normal for everyone, including mild anxiety attack symptoms. However, when they become debilitating or undermine our ability to live our lives, then there is a problem. When the symptoms exceed normal levels and become uncontrollable, lasting a day or more, it is important to seek help. While anxiety attacks are unpleasant experiences when out of control, they can be effectively treated with help and specific treatments prescribed by a knowledgeable doctor.

    Anxiety attacks are common, but their underlying causes and frequency can determine whether treatment is necessary. If you experience one or more anxiety attacks in a week, it is crucial to consult a doctor. Early intervention can help prevent these attacks from disrupting your life.


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