While the experience of a panic attack can be alarming enough that people seek hospitalisation, anxiety alone will not kill you. However, living with an untreated anxiety disorder can cause harm to your quality of life, your physical health, and your mental health.
If you’re having an anxiety attack or mental health crisis, there are free resources available to help. Visit the NHS mental health hotline locator to speak to a crisis counsellor straight away.
What Is An Anxiety Attack?
An anxiety attack — sometimes called a panic attack — is a sudden feeling of intense fear, typically paired with a number of physical health symptoms. Anxiety attacks can happen without a specific cause or in response to stressors.
Essentially, during an anxiety attack, people perceive impending danger, even if there is no danger to be found. These attacks can be crippling, can occur without warning, and lead to you feeling out of control of your own mental and physical state.
Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks
Anxiety attacks have a number of physical and mental health symptoms that occur simultaneously. Common symptoms of anxiety attacks include:
- Chest pain
- Accelerated heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Thoughts running out of control
- Numbness or tingling
- Feeling a knot in your stomach
Many of the physical symptoms of anxiety attacks lead to people believing they are in physical danger. Chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating are all also indicators of cardiac arrest — leading many people to mistake panic attack symptoms for heart attack symptoms.
If you’re unsure of whether you or a loved one are experiencing a heart attack or an anxiety attack, the safest option is to call 999 and seek the support of emergency medical services.
How Long an Anxiety Attack Lasts
The vast majority of anxiety attacks last between five minutes and half an hour, though in some cases, people can experience longer attacks or several attacks one after the other.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of a panic attack can be anxiety-provoking. Particularly when people begin to fear for their lives during an anxious episode, their anxiety levels can rise even higher, which often leads to back-to-back panic attacks.
Understanding what causes your episodes and what to expect when they occur can help you avoid entering a feedback loop of worsening symptoms.
Why Panic Attacks Happen
There is no single cause of anxiety attacks. Any number of triggers or circumstances can lead to an attack, and they often occur for no clear reason at all. However, researchers have identified a few specific scenarios that make panic attacks more likely, including:
- Prolonged periods of stress
- Stimulant use, such as excessive coffee intake, illicit drugs, or prescription medications
- Sudden change in the environment
- Chemical imbalances in the brain, often the result of psychotropic medication
- Negative thought patterns
- Medical health problems
- Lifestyle imbalance
You may have triggers that are unique to you and stem from experiences you have had in the past. Gaining insight into these triggers with the help of a therapist can allow you to work through them and reduce your symptoms.
But internal factors play a role as well. An anxiety attack is often the result of an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response.
When this system becomes activated, it triggers a number of physiological changes, including hyperventilation, a spike of adrenaline, an increase in heart rate, and a burst of restless energy.
Essentially, your body was primed to put itself into a state designed to help you avoid danger. While this may be beneficial in a life-or-death situation, the triggers are often much lower stakes, and the response runs out of proportion to the situation.
Can You Control Anxiety Attacks?
One of the hallmark symptoms of anxiety attacks is a feeling that you’re losing control over your thoughts, body, and emotions. Yet, decades of scientific research have found several methods that you can employ to regain some of that control, reduce some of your symptoms, and start feeling better faster.
Importantly, these strategies aren’t a cure. They can provide some relief but don’t address the underlying problem. But there are some effective strategies to help control panic attacks in times of crisis.
When in the midst of an anxiety attack, you may experience a pattern of frequent, shallow breaths, which can quickly exacerbate your symptoms if left uncontrolled. The breath is an automatic bodily function; you don’t need to think about it for your body to keep breathing.
But you can exert direct control over your breath. By focusing on long, deep breaths, you can prevent your physical anxiety symptoms from spiralling any further.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a grounding technique, meaning it is meant to help you connect with your body when your mind seems to be running out of control. The process is relatively simple. When you first feel the symptoms of an anxiety attack, focus on:
- 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
Bringing your attention to these physical sensations can help soothe your racing thoughts, connect you back to the present moment, and vastly reduce the symptoms of an anxiety attack.
Lifestyle changes take a different approach to dealing with anxiety attacks. They are preventive measures rather than rescue interventions. Enacting certain lifestyle changes, such as engaging in regular exercise, practising meditation, and reducing your stress, can substantially reduce your risk of experiencing a panic attack.
In the case of exercise, regularly training your heart and lungs can help equip your body to handle the physical symptoms of anxiety more efficiently. Your body will already be adjusted to these sudden physiological changes when they arise due to anxiety, which can prevent a full-blown panic attack.
Meditation works similarly, but it trains the mind rather than the body. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to focus on the present moment rather than on what could potentially go wrong in the future. With this skill in hand, you may be able to arrest racing thoughts before they spin out of control.
And finally, general stress reduction can be beneficial as well. Anxiety attacks are often the result of feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, responsibilities, or expectations. By removing some of these from your everyday life, you can reduce your risk of experiencing an anxiety attack in the first place.
Can Anxiety Attacks Cause a Heart Attack?
Anxiety attacks typically don’t cause heart attacks. However, if you have an underlying heart condition, the stress hormones released during a panic attack may trigger a cardiac event.
In addition, there is scientific evidence suggesting that people living with anxiety disorders are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems. This is because living with ever-present anxiety symptoms puts substantial strain on your cardiovascular system due to increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and reduced heart rate variability.
Anxiety Treatment Options
Anxiety disorders can be extremely disruptive, causing a number of impairments in living your life as you see fit. Thankfully, there are several evidence-based treatment options that can help treat your symptoms as well as their underlying causes.
Talk therapy for anxiety disorders has been studied and practised for decades and has shown remarkable efficacy in helping people achieve symptom relief.
Many people will even be able to achieve full remission through talk therapy alone. When an illness is in remission, it means symptoms have been reduced enough that the person no longer meets the diagnostic criteria for the disorder.
A number of different therapeutic styles have proven themselves effective in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders, including:
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy
- Dialectical behaviour therapy
- Interpersonal therapy
- Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
Talk therapy approaches can be used on their own or in combination with a number of different anxiety treatment options for an even greater effect.
Medication management for anxiety disorders focuses on providing you with psychotropic medications that can reduce your symptoms. This includes both short-acting anxiolytics, which can rapidly stop anxiety attacks in their tracks, as well as long-acting medications, which may reduce the number of attacks you experience.
Several different medications can help with anxiety disorders, but it’s not always clear which medication will work best for you. With medication management, you work directly with a psychiatrist who can help you find the right medication and the right dose — and make adjustments as needed to improve your recovery progress.
Ketamine-assisted healing is a novel approach to treating anxiety disorders. Ketamine has been used for decades in medical settings as an anaesthetic, but it has only recently shown promise as a mental health treatment option.
In ketamine-assisted healing, you work directly with a specially trained clinician and a supportive medical team. After a brief assessment and consultation, you can begin your first ketamine-assisted healing session with your therapist.
Ketamine is a dissociative psychedelic, meaning it can cause a feeling of disconnection from your body and sense of self. This effect has proven to be incredibly useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders, as it removes many of the barriers and roadblocks to recovery that people typically face in unassisted talk therapy.
Essentially, ketamine acts as a therapeutic incubator, helping you make breakthroughs and revelations that can change the pace of your mental health recovery process in just a few sessions.
What might take months or years in conventional therapy can take just days or weeks in ketamine-assisted healing, and the improvements in your symptoms can last years.
Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) uses a direct, targeted approach to helping the brain recover from anxiety disorders. In many people experiencing anxiety, certain brain regions are underactive, which can contribute significantly to your experience of panic attacks or other anxiety symptoms.
dTMS provides brief electrical stimulation directly to these underactive regions by using non-invasive electromagnetic technology to send impulses deep within the brain. When these brain regions are stimulated with dTMS, they forge new connections and stay active long after the dTMS procedure is complete.
While most people feel the effects of dTMS straight away, repeated treatments can help make your mental health improvements even more durable.
Start Treatment at APN London
APN London aims to provide the best in conventional and innovative treatment methods for helping people overcome their mental health challenges. Our integrative, holistic approach means no stone will be left unturned in your path to total mental health recovery.
To get started with treatment, contact our team by calling 0203 984 7699 or filling out our online contact form for more information. Our mental health experts can help guide you towards the treatment options that suit you best and will be there to support you through every step of the recovery process.
- Mindfulness, Meditation, and Breathing Exercises: Reduced Anxiety For …, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01609513.2019.1571763. Accessed 28 Jan. 2024.
- Tully, Jamie L., et al. “Ketamine Treatment for Refractory Anxiety: A Systematic Review.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, vol. 88, no. 10, 2022, pp. 4412-4426, https://doi.org/10.1111/bcp.15374. Accessed 28 Jan. 2024.