Exploring Various Anxiety Attack Treatments

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety is a typical emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. However, it doesn’t fade away for some people as it should. Anxiety serves as your body’s early warning system, but people with panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and other mental health conditions with similar emotional symptoms may constantly feel on edge and worried. Read on to learn more about anxiety disorders and the various treatments for anxiety attacks.

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What is an anxiety attack?

Unlike a panic attack, which is a diagnosable condition and has a clear set of symptoms, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not have a set definition for an anxiety attack. While the meaning can be subjective, many consider an anxiety attack to be the sudden or gradually building onset of intense anxiety symptoms concerning an obvious stressor or specific situation that could happen. By comparison, panic attacks can occur without warning or apparent cause. 

However, many people use the term “anxiety attack” to refer to panic attacks. 

About unexpected panic attacks and anxiety attacks

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can be overwhelming experiences that occur suddenly and significantly impact daily life. These episodes, characterized by sudden and intense feelings of fear and apprehension, can worsen if left untreated, potentially leading to the development of panic disorder. 

Recognizing the symptoms of panic, which include emotional and physical manifestations such as muscle tension, is crucial for seeking help from a mental health professional. Traumatic events and a family history of anxiety disorders can all contribute to triggering attacks. 

Practicing deep breathing exercises and other stress management techniques like muscle relaxation can help release tension, prevent panic attacks, and reduce stress levels. Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle with enough sleep, a healthy diet, and regular aerobic exercise can contribute to overall well-being and help prevent panic attacks. 

While medication such as serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors and those in the benzodiazepine drug class may be prescribed in severe cases. However, it's essential to work closely with your doctor to avoid physical dependence and to avoid the use of recreational drugs in an attempt to self-medicate your medical condition. Some individuals also explore alternative therapies such as support groups or herbal remedies. 

By taking proactive steps to manage stress and seek support, individuals can effectively cope with panic attacks and improve their quality of life.

What does an anxiety attack or panic attack look like?

As with many mental health conditions, the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks can differ from one person to another. However, some common symptoms are often seen with anxiety attacks. 

Anxiety attack symptoms include:

  • Intense nervousness or building feelings of worry

  • Feeling that you are losing control of your life or emotions

  • Higher than usual irritability

  • Chest pain

  • Increased or irregular heart rate

  • Lightheadedness or feeling you may faint

  • Rapid breathing, shortness of breath, or other trouble breathing

  • Trembling

  • Nausea

  • A feeling of detachment or unreality

  • Sweating

  • Overwhelming sense of impending doom or danger

  • Trouble concentrating or your mind going blank

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep

Exploring the different anxiety disorders

Anyone can experience an anxiety attack, but it often occurs as an anxiety disorder symptom. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 30% of American adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. 

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Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) typically involves persistent anxiety, worry, fear, or dread about many situations or multiple areas of your life. You may frequently overthink situations or fixate on improbable worst-case scenarios. Because anxiety doesn’t dissipate, your body may be stuck in fight or flight mode, leaving you to constantly perceive threats even when they aren’t present. People with GAD often have trouble handling uncertainty and may demonstrate persistent worry disproportionate to the situation. 

Panic disorder

Anxiety can lead some to develop panic disorder for some people, which involves sudden and extreme periods of overwhelming fear or anxiety. Panic attacks are usually debilitating, causing severe interference with your functional ability, and typically last several minutes. Panic attacks can happen without warning, with or without an obvious cause. Panic attacks may worsen as some experience more anxiety about the severity of future episodes. 

Social anxiety disorder

If your anxiety centers around the fear of ridicule, rejection, or embarrassment in social situations, you may have a social anxiety disorder. This type of anxiety usually involves persistent and intense fear in social situations. You may experience symptoms more often when in situations with unfamiliar people or when performance of any kind is involved. You may also worry about saying or doing something that will draw negative attention to you. 

Separation anxiety disorder

Humans form emotional attachments to the people we care deeply about, and some people experience intense distress when separated from their attachment figures. Separation anxiety disorder typically involves excessive fear and anxiety when away from your loved ones. You may also have nightmares with separation themes, actively avoid being alone, or experience physical symptoms such as a racing pulse and rapid breathing when you’re not together. 

Phobia-related disorders

Some people experience extreme fear and aversion reactions to specific objects or situations, such as a phobia of heights, spiders, or open water. Phobia-related disorders frequently involve concerns about things that pose little or no danger. However, despite the improbability of being injured by the subject of your phobia, you may show severe reactions out of proportion to the situation. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

After experiencing a life-threatening traumatic event, some people have trouble controlling their emotional responses to specific stressors and reminders of their trauma. People with PTSD often have powerful unwanted symptoms that affect their thought patterns, mood, behaviors, and overall comfort, significantly impacting multiple areas of their lives and interfering with their daily function.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Anxiety disorder and anxiety attack treatment 

Most mental health professionals recommend a combination of psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication, and lifestyle changes to treat anxiety disorders. Depending on the type of disorder, several therapeutic options and approaches are available. According to a recent study, people with anxiety disorders generally respond well to a comprehensive treatment plan involving both psychotherapy and psychoactive medications. 

Medication

While not curable, anxiety and panic disorders can be treated by antidepressants, beta-blockers, and anti-anxiety medications. These options may effectively target the symptoms and significantly reduce the discomfort associated with the mental health condition by making it easier to function and cope with the effects. 

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Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common treatments for anxiety disorders. CBT helps you identify and replace negative thought patterns and behaviors with more productive, positive options. 

Exposure therapy helps you control your reaction to the stressors that trigger anxiety through systematic exposure. By exposing you to the object of your phobia or concern, you can develop a tolerance and better control your reactions, learning new ways to confront your fears. 

Group therapy offers both the support and guidance of a professional and a community of other people likely going through similar experiences with their anxiety symptoms. In addition to the benefits of talking with others who tell your disorder, you may also learn about coping mechanisms that helped them and could potentially work for you. 

Relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, biofeedback, deep breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, and autogenic training can help you manage anxiety symptoms. Talk to your doctor to learn more about these treatment methods. 

Stress and anxiety coping strategies

  • Acknowledge the situation and that it will pass

  • Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and get plenty of sleep

  • Practice mindfulness with meditation, yoga, or deep breathing techniques

  • Develop a repertoire of healthy coping skills to manage stress and anxiety

  • Build a support network of friends, family, and mental healthcare providers

  • Take a walk to ground yourself

  • Get regular exercise

  • Keep a journal to track your anxiety triggers and what helps

  • Listen to music that relaxes you

  • Establish calming hobbies

  • Find relaxation techniques that help you feel calm

Know when to reach out for help

Anxiety is a regular part of life and an emotion that everyone experiences. However, if you’re experiencing frequent anxiety attacks or find that your symptoms are severely interfering with your life and ability to function, it may be time to reach out for professional help. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition among adults, affecting nearly 40 million people. The organization said that anxiety disorders are also “highly treatable,” though only 36.9% of people living with them receive treatment.  

How therapy can help you manage anxiety attacks

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most common treatment for anxiety disorders and is available online through virtual mental healthcare platforms like BetterHelp. Working with a licensed therapist can help you identify and replace negative thought patterns and behaviors with healthier, more effective habits. You can also learn practical coping skills to help you manage your anxiety symptoms and stress reactions in tense situations. Flexible appointment formats make fitting therapy into your busy schedule more manageable than ever. 

Online CBT treatments are as effective as in-person sessions, according to a recent study measuring the results of internet-based therapeutic interventions for anxiety disorders. Medical professionals agree that the effectiveness of therapy increases with the number of sessions attended, and many patients said the convenience of receiving treatment at home made it possible to make it to more appointments. 

Takeaway

The sudden onset of intense anxiety symptoms, or an anxiety attack, can severely impact your ability to function and alter your mood or the course of your whole day. The information presented in this article may offer some insight into the various treatments for anxiety disorders and how therapy can help you manage their effects.

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