Stressful situations, large or small, can cause an anxiety attack for people with an anxiety disorder. While many people face anxiety attacks, some don’t know what causes an anxiety attack or the steps to take to prevent them. By understanding what an anxiety attack is, what causes it, and how to prevent it, you positively impact your physical and mental well-being and reduce the frequency and severity of such attacks.
What is an Anxiety Attack?
The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t officially recognize “anxiety attacks,” but mental health professionals use the term to describe a heavy, concentrated moment of anxiety. Most people don’t associate an anxiety attack with life-threatening circumstances or phobias but rather involve powerful feelings of fear and stress.
“Anxiety attacks are frightening for those who experience them,” said Kathy Reynolds, LCSW, Executive Clinical Director at Integrative Life Center. “They make a person feel afraid and out of control, which only heightens their feelings of anxiety.”
Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack
Often, people use the term “anxiety attack” interchangeably with “panic attacks,” but they’re quite different. Anxiety may culminate in a panic attack involving intense and often overwhelming fear or stress. Gradually building up over time, anxiety attacks create an inability to deal with anxiety or stress.
An anxiety attack occurs when you’re pushed to the breaking point with your anxiety levels. While anxiety attacks share the same symptoms as panic attacks, including rapid heartbeat, sweating, and racing thoughts, anxiety attacks are usually less severe. It may not involve a specific trigger, phobia, or fear of the specific place where the attack took place.
It’s crucial to your healing journey that you can spot the signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack to help better equip you with the right coping strategies when faced with your anxiety attacks.
Signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack:
- Cognitive Signs. Having difficulty thinking or focusing or uncontrollable and obsessive thoughts are just a few cognitive signs that you’re having an anxiety attack.
- Emotional Signs. Feeling irritable, tense, nervous, uneasy, or having a sense of dread can bog down your emotional well-being, triggering an anxiety attack.
- Behavioral Signs. High anxiety and stress can change your behaviors and make you act differently than normal. These signs include the inability to sit still or relax, social withdrawal and isolation, or lacking the capacity to complete day-to-day responsibilities and tasks.
- Physical Symptoms. You might experience sweating, increased heart rate, trembling, or fatigue during intense anxiety attacks, as the attacks can affect you physically.
- Emotional Symptoms. You may find that you can’t concentrate, become distracted quickly, and sleep terribly. Emotional symptoms can include irritability, increased sadness or worry, and the feeling of dread or inadequacy.
What Causes an Anxiety Attack?
Many factors can contribute to an anxiety attack. Every person has triggers and stressors that can affect their anxiety differently. Take the time to identify moments and situations that push your anxiety further than comfortable levels and try to find a way to manage those stresses to prevent future attacks.
Causes of anxiety attacks include:
- Buildup of stressors
- Being in uncomfortable situations or situations that feel unsafe
- Major life changes like moving or changing jobs
- Being forced into social situations or having to go places with a lot of people
- Health problems
- Financial concerns
- Heavy caffeine use
“Anxiety attacks happen when an event or series of events causes a person to move into such a heightened state of anxiety that they can’t control their mind and body’s response to the stressor,” Kathy said. “There’s no formula for what causes an anxiety attack. It’s different for everyone.”
What to Do During an Anxiety Attack
During an anxiety attack, you might feel like you don’t have control of the situation, but you do. You can take steps to help alleviate some of the anxiety and stress and reduce the frequency and severity of the attacks. Work with a mental health professional to determine what coping strategies will work best for you and apply them to your treatment plan. Some coping strategies may be participating in hobbies you already enjoy or finding a new passion.
Ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack:
- Recognize What’s Happening. It’s frightening to have an anxiety attack because you feel out of control of your body. Often you may even think you’re having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown of some kind. Recognizing that the sensations you’re feeling are an anxiety attack will help you gain some control over it.
- Find a Private Space. Get to a private place where you feel comfortable and safe, whether in a bedroom, your car, or a public bathroom. It’ll be easier for you to get the anxiety attack under control if it isn’t happening in front of others.
- Practice Intentional Breathing. Take slow, deep breaths and count to 10. Try to ground yourself by clearing your mind and focusing on positive thoughts.
- Focus Your Mind. Focus on the present moment. Try to clear your mind of any regrets from the past or worries about the future.
- Communicate. Contact a trusted loved one or mental health professional who can speak to you calmly and rationally and help talk you down from the peak of your anxiety.
“Re-establishing a sense of safety and calm is vital to preventing or stopping an anxiety attack,” Kathy stated. “An important first step is to be able to recognize, ‘I’m having an anxiety attack,’ then take actions to calm your thinking.”
How to Prevent Anxiety Attacks
Despite your history and experience with anxiety attacks, you can find steps to take that will help prevent future anxiety attacks’ frequency and severity. Use this opportunity to reflect and become self-aware by identifying your anxiety’s triggers and causes. Speak with a mental health professional to create a safety plan to prevent future anxiety attacks or make them more manageable.
To help prevent anxiety attacks:
- Identify Triggers. Reflect on times you’ve had an anxiety attack. What started it or triggered you? Write down those identifiers and work with your mental health professional to resolve those triggers.
- Reflect on Root Causes. Look back at your life and dig into your memories to discover the root cause of your anxiety. By learning what happened to you, you may become more self-aware as to what leads you to respond with anxiety or feelings of stress.
- Challenge Anxious Thoughts. Shut out the negative voice in your head. Challenge negative or anxious thought patterns.
- Journal Noticeable Spikes. Take 10 minutes out of each day and journal your feelings and responses to situations that happened that day. Take note of when you feel anxious. Eliminate or reduce those stressors, if possible.
- Seek Professional Help. Mental health professionals are here to help you heal and live a healthy, less anxious life. They can help create treatment plans to keep you on the right track with your healing journey.
- Rely on Your Support System. Open up to loved ones and allow them to help. When you face difficult times, these people can support and encourage you. You might even find that they relate to your experiences, which creates a stronger bond and helps you feel connected.
Let ILC Help Stop Anxiety Attacks
Anxiety attacks are frightening and make you feel out of control of yourself. But you can regain control and stop anxiety attacks with the right treatment.
“You don’t have to live with anxiety attacks. They are a symptom of anxiety and can be treated, controlled, and all but eliminated like any other symptom can,” Kathy said.