What is an anxiety attack? It’s a pounding heart rate, difficulty breathing, gasping for air, and trembling. It can feel like complete and utter panic, even when there is nothing to fear. Many who have never experienced an anxiety attack confuse the symptoms with a heart attack, and for a good reason.
A panic attack can feel many ways, for many people. But as anyone who has had, one will tell you — it’s not fun.
If you’ve never had an anxiety attack before, it’s normal to feel confused and concerned. What just happened? Did you have a heart attack? Did you overdo it at the gym? Or, and perhaps more likely, did you just have a panic attack? Let’s find out.
What is an Anxiety Attack?
There are two types of panic attacks, the expected and the unexpected. Both describe the sudden onset of intense emotional response, typically including fear, panic, and anxiety. It’s literally an attack of anxiety on your physical and mental self. Panic attacks include both physical and psychological symptoms, with the physical being the most distressing.
An Expected Panic Attack
Expected panic attacks are those which are theoretically predictable. For example, if you have a phobia of spiders and suddenly encounter one. Exposure to challenging environments or phobias may trigger an expected panic attack.
Although phobias are often the root cause of these expected attacks, they aren’t always. Typically though, there seems to be a reason for the sudden onset of anxiety.
To further complicate matters, sometimes an attack of anxiety doesn’t immediately follow the exposure. In some cases, the signs of anxiety come much later – making it difficult for the person to connect the dots.
What Are Unexpected Panic Attacks?
Unexpected anxiety attacks are the opposite. They happen totally out of the blue and unassociated with any logical reasoning. These can come on seemingly at any moment, even when there are no situational triggers. No spiders, no clowns, no big crowds, but nevertheless emotionally triggering.
Unexpected attacks are a requirement for an official diagnosis of panic disorder. While anyone may have a panic attack, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have panic disorder. A diagnosis with panic disorder technically means “recurrent, unexpected panic attacks (e.g., heart palpitations, sweating, trembling).” This is usually followed by changes to behavior in an attempt to avoid panic, additionally fear of what would happen if a panic attack were to happen.
What Are the Symptoms for Anxiety Attacks?
Attacks manifest differently for everyone. If you’ve never had one before, the symptoms are confusing, if not downright terrifying.
Some people report a tightness across their chest, elevated heart rate, and tingling sensations. This also sounds an awful lot like a heart attack if you don’t know the differences.
Others find they feel an extremely urgent fight or flight response coming on. You may feel like you are in the midst of an adult-sized temper tantrum, with uncontrollable crying and hyperventilation. These are all versions of the same experience.
Common Physical Signs of an Anxiety Attack:
- Elevated heart rate
- Body shaking or trembling
- Tight chest sensations
- Tingling throughout the body or just in extremities
- Difficulty breathing
Common Mental or Emotional Signs of an Anxiety Attack:
- Fear, anxiety, panic
- Crying and emotional distress
- Urge to hide or run away
Understanding Anxiety Attacks
Picture your mind like a tall glass, ready to be filled with whatever emotions flow through that day. Happiness, stress, and sadness come and go filling the cup and emptying out as they pass. It’s the natural flow of emotions, as come and go throughout your life.
But what happens if your glass is too full? Image if you never fully release a full glass of stress and anxiety? Panic attacks happen, in this analogy, when your glass is already filled to spilling point, and you encounter another stressful situation. The glass is brimming to the edge with these emotions, and one more drop pushes it over the edge.
People can often operate at elevated stress levels of weeks on end without really noticing the effects. You may be one of the many who brushes off high levels of anxiety only as normal work-related stress. Or you might tell yourself you have to get through this period of struggle, but it’ll be alright. But then an anxiety attack happens.
Sometimes your glass full of stressful emotions never empties and has no more space for additional anxiety. Stress piles on stress, and eventually, it’s reached capacity.
Unexpected or expected triggers tip you over the edge, and that’s when a panic attack hits. Suddenly your usual methods of coping can’t hold in the intensity, and it pours over the edge.
Does Anything Cause Anxiety Attacks?
There are no definite causes of panic attacks. There are several theories, including genetic predisposition, chronic stress, changes within the various communication channels and pathways within the brain, and temperament.
Many also feel that panic attacks have something to do with our natural fight and flight response. This natural response evolved to give us an upper hand in times of serious threats – like fighting off a wild animal.
Today, sitting in front of a desk, our lives look much different than when this response developed. Panic attacks may be a lingering evolutionary response that seems out of place in today’s modern world.
What Is the Difference Between Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks?
Here you may have noticed we are talking about panic attacks and anxiety attacks in the same breath. Are there differences between the two?
Panic attack and anxiety attacks are two different ways to describe the same experience. On a very technical level, there are subtle differences between the two, but most of the world uses these two terms interchangeably.
If you overhear a friend talking about a panic attack, while a family member has mentioned an anxiety attack – they are very likely talking about the same condition.
But, if you have a medical degree, or are a clinical psychologist, you might see key but subtle differences between the two definitions. For starters, you’d reference the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which at the moment only defines panic attacks. Therefore panic attacks are the accepted medical condition, while anxiety attacks are a more colloquial term.
According to the DSM-5, “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” Refer to the earlier section for a complete listing of physical, mental, and emotional anxiety attack signs.
An Anxiety Attack May Be Subtly Different than a Panic Attack
An anxiety attack lacks a clinical definition but is still commonly used on social media, in conversations, and even by doctors as they speak with their patients. It’s almost always used interchangeably with panic attacks – until it isn’t.
Some experts consider anxiety attacks as an extended version of a panic attack: intense anxiety-ridden experiences that can last hours, days, or weeks. Perhaps not a full-fledged “attack” per-say but many of the same simmering physical symptoms. A panic attack hand should be over within 10 to 15 minutes, but with this definition, an anxiety attack lingers for much longer.
But, most people talk about anxiety and panic attacks as the same condition. Therefore, we’ll stick with this interchangeable definition.
How to Tell the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Panic Attack?
You should not stop mid-attack to google the differences between heart attacks and panic attacks, but you might want to know for future reference. After all, the symptoms of an anxiety attack are easily (and often) conflated with a heart attack. The confusion leads many to the emergency room.
Many of anxiety attack symptoms are similar to heart attacks, but there are a few key differences:
- The pain and discomfort during a heart attack get worse over time, while an anxiety attack should end within 10 to 15 minutes.
- Heart attacks have pain that radiates through the jaw, arms, and shoulders.
- The chest sensations during a heart attack feel like squeezing or pressure. The feeling during a panic attack is sharp, piercing pain, and focused in the center of the chest.
If you are worried that you may be having a heart attack, always seek immediate medical attention. While there are no long term health risks associated with panic attacks, we all know how dangerous (even deadly) a heart attack can be.
Do not waste your time Googling for answers if you believe you are experiencing a heart attack. Contact 911 and seek emergency treatment as soon as possible. You are not the only one who has confused the symptoms and will not be the last.
Did You Have a Panic Attack?
If you’ve just been through a wild emotional ride, filled with some of the physical and psychological symptoms listed above – you might be wondering if this was your first panic attack.
Whether you want to call it an anxiety attack vs. panic attack is up to you, but ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you experiencing a period of chronic stress in your life, or did you go through a challenging experience (death, accident, divorce)?
- Did you experience tightness of chest, difficulting catching your breath, and/or elevated heart rate?
- Did you feel overwhelmed, confused, and intense worry?
- Did the experience last only 10 to 15 minutes?
- Did you feel exhausted, spent, and tired following the event?
If you answered yes to the majority of those questions, you did have a panic attack. The good news is you’ve made it through. You might also find it comforting to know there are no health risks associated with anxiety attacks like the one you just had.
For sure, anxiety attacks are terrifying, especially if you’ve never experienced one before, but they are fleeting with no long term risks.
If they continue, you may want to speak with a doctor or therapist about your experience. Prolonged anxiety can have an impact on your life, including relationships, work-life, and emotional stability. No matter how serious it may feel, know that anxiety and panic disorders are incredibly treatable with medications, talk therapy, or some combination of the two.
You don’t have to face an anxiety attack on your own. Talk to friends and family about what you are going through. You may be surprised to find out just how many people in your life have direct experience with anxiety and panic attacks. To share this experience is the first step to getting through it.