Answering Your Question: What Is an Anxiety Attack?

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People often ask what is an anxiety attack, and there is no one straight answer. It has been used as a popular synonym for a panic attack, and has also been distinguished from a panic attack as being less severe.

A panic attack is a discrete list of symptoms that include shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, sweating, a sense of impending doom, and a belief that you may be dying. If you think you are having a panic attack, there are specific things you can do to stop a panic attack now.

The term anxiety attack, though descriptive and popularly employed, is nonetheless colloquial and therefore poorly defined. You won’t find a definition in the DSM-V nor will a mental health professional diagnose you with an anxiety attack, but the popular use of the term has started to shape how the term is used.

Anxiety attacks are real, and here are 5 things to know if you think you are having one.

  1. An anxiety attack is different from a panic attack. Anxiety attack is sometimes used as a synonym for a panic attack. While an anxiety attack can share some symptoms of panic like breathing changes, disorientation, and a sense of feeling out of control or going crazy, an anxiety attack is believed to be less severe than a panic attack in both duration and intensity. Panic attacks also come on suddenly without any obvious stressor, whereas anxiety attacks can come on more gradually and often occur in response to a stressor.
  1. An anxiety attack can follow a significant stressor. Be it a traumatic experience, a sudden tragic loss, or a significant crisis in your personal or professional life, the acute onset of anxiety can be, “an ordinary reaction to extraordinary circumstances,” as noted trauma expert, David W. Foy, PhD, was known to say. Acute grief, shock, and trauma reaction share acute feelings of anxiety as your body and mind try to absorb the intensity of what has happened, pay attention to what matters most, and work toward healing.
  1. An anxiety attack can result from anxiety build up, and avoidance: Anxiety can be additive and cumulative, and leaving anxiety unaddressed unfortunately doesn’t reduce it, it makes it worse. Procrastinators, for example, can often find themselves feeling an anxiety attack when the consequences of their avoidance are suddenly thrust upon them, and no longer escapable. Facing anxiety can be painful, especially if you fear that you can’t handle the pain you are experiencing, even if that doubt is unconscious, can exacerbate your anxiety exponentially. Anxiety that is secondary to emotional or physical pain, called secondary anxiety, can be a powerful accelerant of distress, often driving symptoms of acute anxiety and panic.
  1. Anxiety attacks can also be rooted in physical causes that exacerbate general feelings of anxiety, boosting symptoms into acute anxiety. Intense physical or emotional pain, protracted sleep loss, excess caffeine or alcohol, or sudden changes to medication can each exacerbate anxiety, as well as substantially limit coping skills. Recognizing risk factors, and working to reestablish physical balance can be critical in reducing acute anxiety symptoms.
  1. Anxiety attacks aren’t always bad. Anxiety attacks are terribly uncomfortable, disorienting, and scary, but aren’t always a bad thing. Anxiety can help you focus when a crisis strikes. Did your boss just accuse you of missing a key finding in your sales analysis? Feeling acute anxiety can help you focus on what you need to do to fix the situation. Did you wake up dreading the argument and implications you had the night before with a loved one? Acute anxiety can help you focus on what you need to do to repair an important relationship.

No matter the cause of your anxiety attack, the important thing to know is that you will be ok. Anxiety at its best is a signal that something you care about is on the line. Acute anxiety can help you pay attention to the things that matter most, marshalling your defenses towards solving the problem at hand. In this way, acute anxiety can be helpful, even adaptive.

Anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life; there are excellent treatments and strategies that can help you regain control, and your peace of mind.


To learn more about anxiety and what you can do to harness yours for good in your life, check out my anxiety blog, download my free ebook, or sign up for my newsletter.



Alicia H. Clark, PsyD