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What is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety Attacks Explained

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Updated October 08, 2011

What is an Anxiety Attack?

“Anxiety attack” is not a formal, clinical term, but one that is used by many people to describe all sorts of things, from feeling worried about an upcoming event to intense feelings of terror or fear that would meet the diagnostic criteria for a panic attack. In order to understand what someone means by “anxiety attack,” it is necessary to consider the context in which the symptoms occur.

Anxiety “Attacks” During Perceived Threats

Anxiety can be a response to an imprecise or unknown threat. For example, imagine you’re walking alone down a dark street. You may feel a little uneasy, and perhaps you have a few butterflies in your stomach. This type of “anxiety attack” is related to the possibility that a stranger may jump out from behind a bush, or approach you in some other way, and harm you. This anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from your mind’s vision of the possible dangers that may result in the situation. The symptoms you are experiencing are normal and even beneficial.

Anxiety “Attacks” That Are Really Just Plain Old Anxiety

Sometimes what some people call anxiety attacks are really normal life experiences that make us anxious. These experiences can include things such as, taking a school exam, getting married, becoming a parent, getting divorced, changing jobs, coping with illness and many others. The discomfort anxiety brings in all of these situations is considered normal and even beneficial. For example, anxiety about an upcoming test may cause you to work harder in preparing for the exam.

Anxiety Attacks That Are Really Panic Attacks

Have you ever experienced an intense feeling of terror, fear or apprehension, for no apparent reason? If you have, you may have experienced a panic attack. If you experience recurrent panic attacks, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

Panic attacks are often confusing for the sufferer. They are usually sudden and are accompanied by extremely intense physical sensations, leaving one to believe they may have a serious medical condition. Because the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack are similar to certain serious medical conditions, it is important to rule out any medical causes.

Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  1. palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. sweating
  3. trembling or shaking
  4. sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. feeling of choking
  6. chest pain or discomfort
  7. nausea or abdominal distress
  8. feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  10. fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. fear of dying
  12. numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  13. chills or hot flushes

It is important to note that many people may experience a panic attack once, or even a few times during their lives and may never develop an anxiety disorder. “Anxiety attacks” that are correlated to specific real dangers are not usually a problem. In fact, this type of anxiety is normal. Since the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks may mimic many other medical and psychological disorders, it is important to review your symptoms with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.

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