An anxiety attack is an episode of extreme anxiety, agitation, and fear. It usually occurs rapidly, without much warning, and typically peaks in around ten minutes.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the US, affecting about 18% of the population. Many of us will experience an anxiety attack at some point in our lives, so learning the signs, triggers, and techniques to calm an anxiety attack can be highly beneficial.
What is the difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks?
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks share similar symptoms and can be equally frightening for the person experiencing them. While relatively brief in length, anxiety attacks can happen at almost any time with both men and women reporting symptoms either before, during, or after work, going to bed, or every night before sleep. Women have also reported anxiety attacks around the time of their periods, or even going into labor.
The key difference is that panic attacks tend not to have a trigger whereas anxiety attacks can usually be linked to anxiety over something that has happened or is about to happen.
What triggers an anxiety attack?
The causes of anxiety are complex. Our nervous systems can be triggered by fearful situations. When we feel threatened, stress hormones can flood our bodies, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response. These stress hormones result in increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shallow and ragged breathing, the desire to run away or fight, feeling frozen to the spot, digestive issues, and more.
Sometimes, the situations that trigger an anxiety response are everyday stressors such as road rage, work pressure, busy exam periods, or relationship issues.
This means we often find ourselves in a heightened state. From this already-activated place, further fears or stressors can trigger an anxiety attack.
Some people are more prone to anxiety than others, and there are different types of anxiety. The reasons for this aren’t clear. Triggers vary from person to person but what they do have in common is a sudden onset of intense fear, feelings of terror and dread, and panic.
What are the symptoms of an anxiety attack?
The symptoms of an anxiety attack can vary from person to person, but they are likely to include several of the following symptoms:
- Discomfort or chest pain (“feeling like a heart attack”)
- Fear of dying
- Shaking / trembling
- Change in temperature – feeling cold or warm
- Dizziness, faint-headed, unsteady
- Nausea, vomiting and stomach pains
- Increased heartbeat
- Feeling short of breath, like you can’t catch your breath or that you’re choking
- Feeling like you are out of control
- Feeling detached or that you aren’t real anymore
- Feeling of numbness, tingling in limbs
Some of these physical symptoms can also present in certain medical conditions such as heart arrhythmia or an asthma attack. As these conditions could be more dangerous, a medical assessment should take place before you attempt to manage symptoms of anxiety attacks.
If a person has not had an anxiety attack before, and is unsure they are having one, follow first aid advice by helping the person into a supported seated position such as in a chair or against a wall.
Check for medical alert jewelry and follow any advice or instructions written on necklaces or bracelets. Seek medical assistance.
In cases where the person loses consciousness, check airways, breathing, and circulation, then call an ambulance.
If the person has had an anxiety attack before, ask if there’s anything they need or if any support in particular is most helpful.
How long does an anxiety attack last?
Attacks vary in length from person to person, but they usually last from 5 to 20 minutes, peaking around 10 minutes. Sometimes, anxiety attacks can last for an hour.
For the person experiencing the anxiety attack, it can feel a lot longer, as if it might never end. Some sufferers find it useful to time the length of attacks so they can remind themselves they do end, particularly when attacks are accompanied by the feeling of impending doom or death.
How frequently do anxiety attacks happen?
It varies from person to person. For some, anxiety attacks happen frequently while for others the gap between can be much longer.
Anything stressful or overwhelming can be a trigger for anxiety attacks, so their frequency is related to how frequently a trigger arises.
How to calm an anxiety attack
If your nervous system is responding strongly to a perceived threat of some kind, whether that’s public speaking, going on a date, taking an exam, a job interview, or something more everyday, the way to calm an anxiety attack is to calm your nervous system.
Because our nervous system is activated into a fear or stress response via our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell – it is also possible to send our body the message we are safe using the same mechanism.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method
This method is a grounding technique that many anxiety sufferers find incredibly helpful. Plus, it’s very simple to do and easy to remember.
Look around you and name:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
The 5-4-3-2-1 method brings you back into the present moment, and it pulls in stimuli through all five senses, reassuring your nervous system that you are safe.
Does breathing help with anxiety attacks?
Yes, breathing is one of the best-known ways to help in an anxiety attack. Rapid, shallow breathing is one of the symptoms of an anxiety attack, so try slowing down your breath and breathing deeply into your belly as a way to signal to your body that you are safe. Counting to five with each inhale and exhale can help.
Another way to remember to breathe slowly and deeply is a method called Starfish Breathing. Spread out your fingers into a star shape and use the forefinger of your other hand to slowly trace the outline of your hand, breathing in on the upstroke and out on the downstroke.
This is a particularly useful technique to use when you are beginning to feel anxious but are in a meeting, at school, or in a situation where you want to calm down without drawing attention to yourself. You can do this with your hands on your knees under a table or desk without anyone noticing.
How can you help someone having an anxiety attack?
It can be frightening to witness a friend, colleague or loved one experiencing an anxiety attack, and it’s important to remain calm. Once you’ve eliminated the possibility this is a medical condition, try the following tips:
- Support them by saying you think they are having an anxiety attack and that you will stay with them. Gently remind them they are safe and this will end.
- Breathe slowly and clearly, in and out, and encourage them to match their breathing pattern to yours. Breathing into a paper bag is not helpful, so don’t suggest this.
- Instead, speak calmly and in short, clear sentences. Offer a basic distraction such as counting or asking the person to track your arm moving up and down.
- Ask them if there’s anything they want or need. Avoid touching them without consent, and be mindful of their personal space.
- Encourage them to stamp their feet on the ground.
- Stay with them until they begin to feel better.
After the attack, check in with the person and ask if this is something they’ve experienced before. Seek to understand their experience and read up on anxiety and panic attacks so you are better equipped to offer support in the future.
It’s important to remember that anxiety attacks can feel terrifying for the person in question. Don’t belittle this. Instead, keep reassuring them this will pass and they are safe.
What should I do after an anxiety attack?
Rest as much as you possibly can. Anxiety attacks are incredibly draining, with our nervous system calming itself down and returning to a more steady place. You might even find that you are wiped out for the rest of the day. Take it easy.
How can I prepare for anxiety attacks in the future?
Understand your triggers
As soon as you feel able to, it can be helpful to make a note of what triggered your anxiety attack, how long it lasted (if known), and also what was helpful in the moment. You can use this as a reminder or cheat sheet if you feel you might be close to an anxiety attack, as this preparation could be enough to stave off a full-blown attack.
Building an anxiety attack toolkit
Your cheat sheet of triggers could be one element in your anxiety attack toolkit. Alongside this, you could write a script for others to follow if you are likely to be triggered when you’re with people who might not be aware you suffer with anxiety.
Safe place imagery
This technique was developed by Dr Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy.  It’s a technique that allows you to cultivate a feeling of safety wherever you may be. Begin by thinking about a place where you feel particularly content and safe. Perhaps it’s a vacation you’ve taken, or a room in your home, or a place you like to visit.
Think about the way you feel when you’re there. Using your senses, try to evoke as much of the feeling of the place as you can, so focus on colors, sounds, safe people who may be there with you, what your body feels like.
Keep reminding yourself how safe and secure you feel in your safe place. Using words like ‘calm’, ‘serene’, ‘safe’, ‘peaceful’, and ‘comfortable’ will convince your brain that you’re actually there.
Your safe place is always there to welcome you in times of fear or anxiety. Practice going there regularly to ensure you know how easy it is to access.
If you’d rather be guided through this process, this online version is just over 8 minutes in duration and led by an expert in Compassion-Focused Therapy.
Using your senses
Alongside the 5-4-3-2-1 method, you can seek out more sensory input that helps you feel safe. There may be one or two senses that are particularly impactful for you, so focus on those over the others.
Some examples for each sense include:
- Look at a photograph of a loved one or your safe place
- Find a view that includes some nature such as a tree
- Pick a color and find all the things in the room that are this color
- Pet a cat or dog
- Use a weighted blanket
- Put a warm face cloth over your face
- Make a playlist of the music you find uplifting
- Listen to a windchime
- Get a loved one to record their voice repeating calming phrases
- White noise or nature soundtracks
- Try a guided meditation if that’s helpful to you
- Essential oils
- A favorite perfume
- Bakery smells, fresh coffee or other appealing culinary aromas
- Suck a mint
- Take a sip of sweet tea
Anxiety over anxiety
Because anxiety attacks are unpleasant, once you’ve experienced one attack, you’re more likely to feel anxious about another attack happening.
Unfortunately, it is more likely that anxiety attacks will happen again but the anxiety about the anxiety (psychologists call these meta-thoughts or meta-worries) makes it worse.
A repeated pattern of anxiety attacks and fear of anxiety attacks that becomes entrenched is known as Panic Disorder. It’s a condition that affects more than 6 million Americans, and women more than men.
If the triggers for an anxiety attack include particular places or situations, sufferers often begin to fear and avoid these for fear another attack may happen. This can lead to a condition called Social Anxiety Disorder.
Both Panic Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder erode quality of life. However, these are treatable conditions that require help from a specialist. The Center • A Place of HOPE can help you with the correct diagnosis for your condition, as well as help you on each step of your journey towards wellness by finding the right treatments and advice for you.
How is anxiety treated?
There are a range of treatments for anxiety, including talking therapies and medication. The Center • A Place of HOPE has an excellent track record in treating anxiety, with personalized treatment plans that are individualized for each client. Recognized as one of the leading mental health treatment centers in the world, The Center is ready to help you or a loved one with anxiety. Call The Center today at 888.771.5166 to learn more.