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What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

    What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

    Anxiety is something we all experience as humans. If you have been alive for more than a few days, chances are you have experienced anxiety at some point in your life. It often has a negative connotation, but anxiety can also be protective or helpful to an extent. But what does an anxiety attack feel like?

    Anxiety is what helps us register threats and respond accordingly, aiding with our survival. If you’ve ever walked down a dark alley at night and felt uneasy or jittery, you’ve likely experienced anxiety. This phenomenon is due to the belief of the possibility of danger or harm. Walking down the alley should be a safe experience.  Anxiety keeps you on edge and alert so you are prepared to response to a threat should it occur. 

    For that same reason, anxiety often occurs when we face stressful situations, experiences, or events. The idea of public speaking is a common source of anxiety. Many people fear public speaking more than death! We use our voices all the time to communicate.  However, the vulnerability of being subject to scrutiny in front of an audience elicits intense fear and anxiety for many.

    When is anxiety considered an issue?

    It is when our anxiety becomes excessive that it may be considered unhelpful. Having an excessive or overwhelming amount of anxiety can cause discomfort or negatively impact our day-to-day functioning. This excessive fear or worry often spurs other mental and physiological reactions.  These can cause discomfort and leave you in a ‘heightened’ state. 

    Depending on the person, anxiety symptoms may manifest in a variety of ways.  Common features include physiological symptoms (e.g. sweating, tingling in fingers and toes, trembling, rapid heartbeat, breathing quickly). Cognitive and emotional effects are common as well. These can include racing thoughts, irritability, a sense of intense nervousness or fear, trouble concentrating and more. In identifying and diagnosing anxiety disorders, mental health professionals often look for excessive worry or fear paired as a primary symptom.  These can be paired with other symptoms as well.

    In instances where anxiety symptoms are triggered and the feeling is overwhelming, this is what many refer to as an anxiety “attack”. What an anxiety attack feels like may differ from person to person.  A hallmark of this experience is an extreme sense of loss of control and/or fear of doom or danger. As the name suggests, these “attacks” can come on unexpectedly or for no apparent reason.  On the contrary, they can also be linked to specific triggers. For example, a person fears heights and finds themselves in or near a scenario where they may have to go up high. This could be for example riding an elevator, or climbing the stairs in a lighthouse, they may briefly experience a cluster of anxiety symptoms related to that situation.  This could be identified as an anxiety attack.

    So what does an anxiety attack feel like?

    Now you may be wondering, “have I had an anxiety attack?” or “what does an anxiety attack feel like?”. Though panic attacks, a similar but slightly different phenomenon, are included in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), it does not mention anxiety attacks. This is not to say that anxiety attacks are not real or legitimate. Lack of diagnostic recognition means that the signs and symptoms are open to interpretation. A person saying that they had an anxiety attack is a way of describing a myriad of anxious responses. 

    To better understand what a person means by anxiety attack, it helps to consider the context in which their symptoms occur. While symptoms of an anxiety attack are not delineated in the DSM-5 and may vary from person to person, what an anxiety attack feels like may be described in the following ways:

    2 Examples of Anxiety Attacks

    “Leading up to my final exams, I felt edgy and worked up. I had trouble sleeping at night and felt like I was constantly worried about my performance. My shoulders felt very tense, my stomach was in knots, and I had difficulty eating. The morning of my exam, I walked into the exam room and my heart started pounding. I felt dizzy and lightheaded, like I couldn’t focus. My hands felt like there were pins and needles in them. At the worst of the episode, I felt almost like I was outside of my own body watching it all happen.” 

    Another person having an anxiety attack in that very same exam room might experience something completely different.  This could be a sensation of chills or hot flashes, their chest and throat feeling “tight” as if they have dry mouth.  Perhaps these feelings come along with a nauseous feeling or an upset stomach. They may not have that ‘out of body’ feeling sometimes known as derealization or dissociation like the other person described. For some, anxiety can take on a strong physical manifestation, impact them more mentally, or some combination of both.

    Though the stressor was identical, each of these individuals’ anxiety experiences differed. Both instances were alarming to each person who experienced them.  Both may be a sign that they are experiencing a mental health condition of some kind. Fortunately, there are various strategies for coping with anxiety before, during, and after it occurs. 

    Common strategies for reducing or relieving stress and anxiety 

    • Deep breathing – taking deep breaths helps you lower your heart rate and lends itself to feeling calmer.
    • Mindfulness and meditation – mindfulness practices are great way to center yourself in the present.  These exercises help you to focus on the current moment.
    • Getting adequate sleep – sleep is vital to feeling well-rested and preventing that edgy, irritable feeling that may make you hyper-alert to ‘threats’ 
    • Regular exercise – bodily movement can increase endorphins and clear your mind, helping to reduce stress.
    • Social support – reducing feelings of isolation and leaning on the support of friends and family can help allay feelings of worry. Additionally, support groups that are specific to anxiety may be beneficial.
    • Mental health treatment – talk or exposure therapy, medications, or a combination may aid with practicing coping techniques and identifying triggers for anxiety.

    That is by no means an exhaustive list, but nevertheless gives an idea of the types of strategies for reducing anxiety symptoms when they occur.

    How do I know if I have anxiety?

    Again, anxiety symptoms can present in a variety of ways, so this is not to invalidate or minimize anyone’s experience. This article simply describes common presentations that depict what an anxiety attack may feel like.

    There are various disorders that can cause what people might describe as an anxiety “attack”.  These can include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and so on. Even without a formal diagnosis, it is possible to experience anxiety symptoms and anxiety attacks.

    That said, if you think you may have an anxiety disorder or generally feel that anxiety symptoms have an impact on your life, speaking with and being assessed by a mental health professional may be beneficial. You do not need a label or diagnosis to validate that you have experienced an anxiety attack. However, sometimes having this verification can help you take ownership of the experience. Additionally, a mental health professional can assist you with identifying potential triggers and developing a strategy for coping with anxiety responses.

    Final thoughts on What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like

    Knowing what an anxiety attack can feel like may help with identifying symptoms of anxiety as they occur. Being aware of the physical sensations or mental effects of excessive anxiety can help you pinpoint when you may need to practice coping strategies. It may not be possible to completely rid yourself of anxiety.  Even so, having tools and techniques to work through the feelings of anxiety can be very beneficial in adapting well.

    If you or someone you know needs mental health resources, consider reaching out to The Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

    Haley Ingersoll, MSW, is involved with health experience research and mental health advocacy. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, focusing in policy and administration and currently resides in Pittsburgh, PA. Ingersoll’s notable experience includes qualitative research projects geared toward quality improvement in health care and a fellowship focused on health and social policy. In her career and personal life, she maintains a dedication to health advocacy, improving quality, cost, and access of resources, and overall wellness