What Is an Anxiety Attack?

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
July 21, 2023
What Is an Anxiety Attack?

Feeling anxiety sometimes is normal, but severe anxiety can negatively affect your work and social life. Learn about what an anxiety attack is and the symptoms.

Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Everyday causes of anxiety can include running late to an appointment, worrying about passing a test, dreading a dental appointment, or being nervous about giving a speech. Those feelings can be unpleasant, but they are usually short-lived and a normal part of life .

But some people have episodes of anxiety so severe in certain situations their symptoms amount to an anxiety attack.

If you wonder what an anxiety attack is, consider this tell-tale sign, uncomfortable and severe feelings of anxiety triggered by a specific activity or place. The anxiety-producing trigger can make you dread or even avoid that situation again.


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An anxiety attack is not a panic attack

“There are similarities and differences between anxiety and panic attacks,” Henry Ford Hospital psychiatrist Cathrine Frank, MD, explained in an interview with ABC News. “With an anxiety attack, people may feel fearful, apprehensive, and may feel their heart racing or feel short of breath, but it's very short lived, and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack. Panic attack on the other hand doesn't come in reaction to a stressor. It's unprovoked and unpredictable.”

Panic attacks include symptoms such as:

  • Rapid and sometimes irregular heartbeats
  • Feeling you are about to die or are out of control
  • Sweating, trembling, or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sensations of choking or smothering

A person can be grocery shopping, talking on the phone to a friend, or driving and suddenly have feelings of total panic out of the blue. The experience can result in being constantly fearful another panic attack will strike anytime, anywhere.

Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, are associated with specific situations. For example, if you feel anxious when you must speak in front of a group, you may feel yourself perspiring, your mouth can be dry, and your heart may pound every time you have to talk in front of a crowd.

But, unlike panic attacks, you don’t have anxiety attacks without some known anxiety-causing situation and a specific trigger.

What’s more, when people experience panic attacks, they may believe they are dying and even head to the ER.

But if you have an anxiety attack, although it may be extremely uncomfortable, your anxious feelings typically begin to lessen as you move through the situation that made you uncomfortable — like getting halfway through a speech.

Anxiety attack causes

If anxiety attacks are frequent when you are faced with a trigger, they are likely attributable to a type of anxiety

People with generalized anxiety disorder may worry about their health or performance at work and then have an anxiety attack when they experience specific triggers, such as a doctor appointment or a meeting with their boss.

Social anxiety disorder symptoms occur when you are in a social or performance situation in which you fear other people negatively evaluating or embarrassing you. Having an anxiety attack in such situations can cause you to avoid social and workplace opportunities.

Phobias, such as a fear of dogs or flying, can cause anxiety attacks that occur only in a specific situation — like having a dog approach you or boarding a plane.

Help for anxiety attacks

Once you learn that you are having anxiety attacks and want to overcome your problem, ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The American Psychological Association points out there are multiple approaches to treating anxiety disorders linked to anxiety attacks:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy, teaches different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations. CBT can also help you learn and practice social skills to keep social anxiety at bay.
  • Exposure therapy focuses on confronting fears underlying your anxiety attacks so you can engage in activities you’ve been avoiding — like flying or public speaking — because of anxiety. Exposure therapy may be combined with relaxation exercises.
  • Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Prescription drugs used to treat anxiety include antidepressants, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines. Those medicines have benefits, as well as potential side effects. Benzodiazepines, for example, can be addictive and should be used for as short a period as possible. Ask your doctor about the benefits and side effects of any medication you take.

You don’t have to accept having anxiety attacks. Work with your doctor to find the best treatment for your anxiety attack symptoms.


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July 21, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN