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What Do Anxiety Attacks Feel Like?

Anxiety attacks can be paralysing, frightening events that stop you from achieving your personal goals and living the life you deserve. But what does an anxiety attack feel like, and what can you do if you experience panic attacks regularly?

Thankfully, there are a number of effective treatment and intervention options to help reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks. But first, it’s important to recognise how anxiety attacks feel and what steps you should take to achieve recovery.

How Anxiety Attacks Can Feel

An anxiety attack — sometimes called a panic attack — is a sudden, overwhelming sense of fear, impending doom, or loss of control. When experiencing a panic attack, it can feel like your mind is running on overdrive, spinning out of control, with thoughts and fears running at you from every direction.

Alternatively, some people feel a strong feeling of dissociation, or a disconnection from their mind or body.

Not everyone reacts to anxiety attacks in the same way. Some people freeze, paralysed by the intense emotions and flood of thoughts. Others will seek to escape the situation that’s giving them anxiety, while some people will lash out at those closest to them.

An anxiety attack is a response to perceived danger — and your body and mind respond automatically to preserve life and limb. Unsurprisingly, the reactions to anxiety attacks closely parallel the fight, flight, or freeze response associated with highly stressful or dangerous situations.

Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

The symptoms of anxiety attacks include both mental and physical effects, either of which can be debilitating. Common symptoms of anxiety attacks include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • A powerful feeling of danger or dread
  • A sensation of losing control over yourself
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Numbness of tingling

Due to a significant overlap in symptoms, people experiencing anxiety attacks often mistake a panic attack for a heart attack. Numbness, rapid heartbeats, and sweating are all early symptoms of a heart attack, and people will frequently seek hospitalisation in this frightening situation.

Thankfully, anxiety attacks are rarely fatal. If you are experiencing these symptoms and are unsure whether it is a heart attack or anxiety attack, the best course of action is to seek medical services to ensure your or your loved one’s safety.

Why Do Anxiety Attacks Happen?

Anxiety attacks are one of the key symptoms of a mental health disorder known as panic disorder. People with panic disorder have relatively frequent, disruptive anxiety attacks, often for no clear reason at all.

The exact cause for panic disorder is unknown, though there have been genetic links that suggest that it is passed down within families. Some researchers believe that panic disorder is the result of an overactive sympathetic nervous system — the system responsible for the fight or flight response.

According to this theory, people with panic disorder will often receive “false alarms” that they are in a dangerous or threatening situation. In response, the sympathetic nervous system fires into high gear, preparing you to escape from danger, protect yourself, or fight off attackers.

Additionally, the very symptoms of an anxiety attack can lead to a rapid worsening of anxiety and a sense of panic. For example, a person experiencing anxiety may experience a heart rate increase, rapid breathing, and numbness in an arm — all signs of a heart attack.

Believing that they are entering cardiac arrest, their anxiety rapidly worsens to the point that they may experience the full-blown hallmarks of a panic attack.

How Long Do Panic Attacks Last?

Most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes, according to the NHS. Sometimes, an anxiety attack can seem to last much longer, or people may have multiple panic attacks in a row.

Following a panic attack, many people still feel lingering symptoms, even though the highly intense emotions and racing thoughts begin to dissipate. You may feel hungover, on edge, or extremely exhausted physically and mentally. You may continue to feel anxious about the events surrounding you well after the panic attack itself.

Other Types of Anxiety Disorders

Panic disorder is just one of many different types of anxiety. And while frequent panic attacks typically lead to a diagnosis of panic disorder, you may also have a secondary anxiety diagnosis that contributes to your overall mental health, as well as your risk for experiencing a panic attack.

Other common anxiety disorders include:

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is one of the more common anxiety disorders. People with social anxiety disorder typically experience intense anxiety in social situations, such as:

  • Performing publicly
  • Speaking publicly
  • Going on dates
  • Attending social gathering
  • Going to places with large groups of people

While it is completely normal to feel nervous in social situations, people with social anxiety have a much more severe and debilitating experience. Typically, they fear judgement from others or embarrassing themselves, and may avoid social situations entirely in order to avoid the experience of anxiety that they can bring.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder is characterised by frequent experiences of anxiety for no apparent reason. People with this disorder experience excessive worry and stress, even in response to normal or everyday situations.

While the anxiety from generalised anxiety disorder typically isn’t as severe and debilitating as an anxiety attack, it can be extremely pervasive. To receive a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, people need to experience uncontrollable worry most days of the week for at least six months at a time.

Further, generalised anxiety disorder can result in sleep disruptions, muscle tension, headaches, and a number of other physical health conditions, further leading to impairment in everyday life.

Specific Phobias

Specific phobias are intense or irrational fears about certain objects, creatures, or situations. People with specific phobias fear these things even though they often pose little to no actual danger.

These phobias are often grouped into common categories, such as:

  • Arachnophobia: The fear of spiders
  • Claustrophobia: The fear of confined spaces
  • Aerophobia: The fear of flying
  • Trypophobia: The fear of holes

Agoraphobia — the fear of crowds or open spaces — is distinct from specific phobias, and a unique anxiety disorder on its own. In agoraphobia, people often fear that when they enter these spaces, they will experience anxiety or panic attacks, so they avoid them altogether.

How to Prevent Anxiety Attacks

Preventing an anxiety attack isn’t always easy. Most people will need the help of mental health professionals to overcome anxiety attacks and truly prevent them from happening in the future.

Thankfully, there are several effective and evidence-based methods for treating both anxiety attacks and other forms of anxiety disorders, helping people to get back onto their feet and live life as they see fit.

Traditional Treatment Methods for Anxiety

The treatment of anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders has been studied for decades. This has resulted in several evidence-based treatment approaches, typically falling into one of two categories:

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy for anxiety disorders can vastly reduce your symptoms of anxiety, help prevent anxiety attacks, and start you on the path to recovery. A number of different talk therapy methods have been shown to be effective at treating anxiety, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy
  • Exposure therapy
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy

While each specific therapeutic technique takes a unique approach, you can expect to learn practical techniques to manage your panic attack symptoms in the moment, and healthy coping mechanisms to prevent anxiety attacks from occurring. You can also gain insight into why your anxiety happens in the first place.

Medication Management

Medication management takes a different approach by providing people with psychotropic medications, which can provide tangible relief from anxiety symptoms. Depending on the medication, these can provide anxiety relief within minutes, or prevent the experience of anxiety from happening in the first place.

But medication management is more than just getting a prescription from a psychiatrist. Quality medication management takes place over weeks or months, which offers you and your psychiatrist the opportunity to find the right medications that work for you, adjust the dosage and timing as needed, and address any side effects that you may experience.

Medication management works best when it is paired with other treatment interventions, such as talk therapy. By seeking combined treatment, you increase your chances of achieving lasting recovery.

Novel and Innovative Approaches

As effective as the traditional treatments can be, they don’t always work for everyone. But there are a number of novel and innovative treatment approaches that can work even when you’ve tried traditional treatment approaches without success.

Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (dTMS)

Deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) puts the findings from neuroscience into practical application. Researchers have found that certain brain regions are underactive compared to neurotypical controls with a number of different anxiety disorders.

With dTMS, these brain regions can be stimulated directly. Brief electric impulses from a specialised dTMS helmet can increase the electrical activity in these areas, which in turn leads to lasting improvements in brain activity in these regions.

This treatment is safe and effective for a variety of mental health conditions and can be used in tandem with other treatment interventions to enhance your overall likelihood of achieving recovery.

Ketamine-Assisted Healing

Ketamine-assisted healing uses the dissociative psychedelic ketamine to enhance the therapeutic process. Ketamine has been used in medicine for decades as an anaesthetic but has only recently shown promise as an effective method for treating anxiety and other mental health disorders.

The ketamine-assisted healing process involves a few key components. First, you’ll meet with our team of medical and mental health professionals for an assessment and consultation, where we can answer any questions you have about the treatment process.

Next is the ketamine-assisted healing session itself. Our team will administer a subanaesthetic dose of ketamine, typically in the form of a lozenge or nasal spray.

The subjective effects begin in about thirty minutes. The dissociative properties of ketamine can help people disconnect from the feeling of anxiety, look at their mental health challenges objectively, and make substantial breakthroughs in the recovery process.

During the session, you work directly with a specially trained therapist who helps guide you through the process. The effects of ketamine last about two hours, and your therapist will sit with you through the entire experience.

Start Anxiety Treatment at APN London Today

At APN London, our programme emphasises a comprehensive approach to help you overcome your anxiety disorder. By using both traditional and innovative approaches, we ensure that you have every option available to help you start the path to recovery and find the results you seek.

To get started with treatment at APN London, call our team today at 0203 984 7699 or fill out our online contact form for more information.

References

  • “Overview – Generalised Anxiety Disorder in Adults.” NHS Choices, NHS, www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/overview/. Accessed 10 Feb. 2024.
  • “Panic Disorder.” NHS Choices, NHS, www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/panic-disorder/. Accessed 10 Feb. 2024.