What Is An Anxiety Attack? 10 Ways To Recognize And Cope With An Anxiety Attack

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

An anxiety attack can be defined as a sudden and intense onset of mental and physical anxiety symptoms. There can be many forms of anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others. To cope with anxiety symptoms, it may be helpful to connect with others, practice stress management techniques, exercise regularly, engage in self-care, and identify your triggers. If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms or attacks that negatively impact your daily life, it can be vital to seek professional help through in-person or online therapy.

Why is it important to recognize anxiety?

Gain control over anxiety attacks

Experiencing anxiety can be a normal part of life. It is generally part of the body’s fight-or-flight response that can be triggered when you experience a situation that’s a threat, challenge, or form of pressure. Anxiety can occur at different levels. It can help you stay focused, alert, and motivated in some cases. However, too much anxiety may lead you to frequently feel overwhelmed, fearful, and worried, and this may signal a disorder.

In general, there are different classifications of anxiety, and they may occur with or without warning. People tend to react to situations differently, and how they respond may reflect the level of anxiety they’re experiencing. Some people may have generalized anxiety disorder and not know it because they have a habit of persistent worrying. 

Meanwhile, some may regularly experience physical symptoms when under stress, not realizing they might have an anxiety disorder affecting their health. Because anxiety can influence how you live your life, it can be crucial to recognize the signs and manage anxiety symptoms.

10 signs and symptoms of anxiety attacks

Many may question whether they have an anxiety disorder when they become aware of their thoughts and actions in certain situations. Some may notice they are on edge or constantly worrying about something. They may notice anxiety affecting their relationships at home or at work. 

Others may have a fear they can’t get past or believe something terrible may happen without proof. People may avoid certain activities or situations because they know anxiety will be triggered. A person’s symptoms can also cause them to have thoughts of self-harm. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. Support is available 24/7. 

An anxiety attack can be viewed as a form of anxiety that occurs suddenly. It can be triggered by an unwelcome memory or an upcoming action to perform, such as giving a speech. An anxiety attack may last for several minutes to a half-hour. 

Some who have experienced an anxiety attack may recall feeling frightened and scared because of physical symptoms that may include the following:
  • Heavy breathing or hyperventilation

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Feeling unconnected or detached

  • Feeling a loss of control

  • An overwhelming feeling of panic

  • Chest pain or heart palpations

  • Chills, sweats, or hot flashes

  • Stomach cramps or nausea

  • Feeling like passing out

  • Difficulty breathing

If you feel like you’re experiencing an anxiety attack, it can be best to seek help. There may be treatments that can reduce or prevent future attacks.

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Differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often confused for each other; and many people mistakenly use the term anxiety attack to describe a panic attack. While both anxiety and panic attacks are characterized by intense physical symptoms and potentially overwhelming fear, they have a few fundamental differences. Panic attacks are recognized psychological phenomena that are listed in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Anxiety attacks are not diagnosable conditions listed in the DSM-V. 

While anxiety and panic attacks have similar symptoms, their sources are different. Panic attack symptoms typically arise without a specific cause, while anxiety attack symptoms usually occur in response to a trigger. For example, people with specific phobias may experience anxiety attacks when confronted with the subject of their fears, while people with panic disorders can experience panic attacks while going about everyday life. Panic attacks also tend to be shorter and more intense than anxiety attacks. 

An overview of anxiety disorders

Though the exact causes of anxiety disorders are unknown, according to the American Psychiatric Association, they are likely caused by a mix of biological and environmental factors. Genetics are thought to play a primary role—individuals with a family history of anxiety are at higher risk of experiencing a disorder themselves. Environmental factors may include major life events (e.g., moving states), medical conditions (e.g., thyroid problems), traumatic events (e.g., a natural disaster), and the existence of comorbid mental health conditions (e.g., other anxiety disorders). 

Understanding how anxiety can affect people often includes learning about different types of anxiety disorders, such as the following:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

This form of anxiety may distract you from completing daily activities. A person with GAD may constantly worry or frequently feel anxious. Someone with this disorder may experience fatigue, restlessness, and insomnia.

Social anxiety disorder

A person with this disorder may fear speaking in public or experience social phobia. They may assume people will have negative thoughts about them. They may be seen as extremely shy.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

A person with this disorder may have obsessions related to objects or feel troubled by certain actions. They may have a habit of completing repeated actions, such as handwashing, or constantly worry something needs to be done. Note: Although OCD typically involves feelings of anxiety, it may technically be categorized in the “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders and Related Conditions” section of the DSM-5.

Separation anxiety disorder

This disorder can be common among children. It usually involves an agitated feeling of being separated from someone or something, usually parents or caregivers.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by ongoing panic attacks, which are sudden episodes of excessive anxiety. Panic attacks can cause physical symptoms that feel life threatening, including chest pain, a racing heart, and rapid breathing. (Panic attacks do not usually cause physical harm or require medical help.) The symptoms of panic disorder—which may include abnormal behavioral changes and a near-constant fear of recurrent attacks—can significantly impact an individual’s life. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

A person with this disorder may experience a panic attack related to a traumatic event from their past. PTSD may also include symptoms like nightmares or flashbacks of the event. A person with PTSD may be easily startled, avoid situations that remind them of the trauma, or withdraw from being around others.

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

If you believe you’re living with an anxiety disorder, a healthcare professional can conduct an evaluation (which may include a physical examination, blood tests, and other screening assessments) to determine whether a diagnosis is necessary. If they believe your symptoms meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder—as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—you may receive a diagnosis. Whether you are living with generalized anxiety disorder or another type of anxiety, there may be many helpful treatment options. 

How to cope with anxiety

Worrying can be a part of life, and it doesn’t always mean you have a disorder. Sometimes, anxiety can become overwhelming, and you may need to know how to manage and cope with it. You may feel anxious about an upcoming event or feel pressure to get things done at home or at work. Such pressure may take a physical toll, potentially leaving you feeling uneasy. Here are some potential ways to cope with anxiety:

Connect with others

Isolating yourself may worsen symptoms or trigger additional stress. Try to establish social connections and keep an open line of communication with those you care about. It may be helpful to choose a buddy to talk to when you feel anxiety levels rising.

Practice stress management techniques

Learn how to prioritize your responsibilities to keep stress levels low. Practice methods to calm your nerves and thoughts, like mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. Managing stress effectively may improve your mood and limit health risks. 

Exercise regularly

Regular physical activity can calm and control the nervous system. Exercise often naturally boosts your mood due to the release of endorphins. Consider a routine that includes 30 minutes of exercise a few days a week, such as brisk walking or aerobics.

Take proper care of yourself

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and avoid skipping meals. Take time out for yourself to do something you enjoy, such as a hobby or social activity. Doing what you enjoy can relieve stress while enabling you to invest in personal time. Try to limit your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, as these substances may exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

Know your triggers

It can be helpful to make a list of things that trigger your anxiety. You can keep a journal to write down anxious thoughts as well. You might use this information to articulate your feelings and look at situations from another perspective. Consider noting chronic worrying or unhealthy thinking habits you wish to break. The ability to identify triggers can be a beneficial tool to have when working with a therapist.

When is it time to seek professional help?

When you notice anxiety is getting in the way of living your life, it may be time to seek professional guidance. Working with a professional, along with self-help strategies, may provide the right balance of support necessary to cope. 

Many people experience physical anxiety symptoms that should be followed up with a medical expert to rule out underlying conditions. Sometimes, anxiety can be a medication side effect as well. Feelings of anxiety that affect your ability to work, care for yourself, or keep up with family responsibilities should generally be discussed with your doctor, who may recommend that you work with a therapist. 

Treatment options for anxiety

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Gain control over anxiety attacks

Your doctor may provide insight on how to cope with anxiety based on your symptoms. Therapy, medication, or a combination of both can be standard options for treating anxiety symptoms, although research shows that psychotherapy is typically the most effective option

Generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, and panic disorder often benefit from therapy options, including cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.

CBT usually explores thinking patterns that can trigger anxiety. You’ll normally work with a therapist to identify and challenge your beliefs while developing methods to change or improve unhelpful thought patterns. 

Another form of therapy for anxiety, known as exposure therapy, may enable you to confront your fears through gradual exposure. You may learn how to tackle personal concerns and gain self-control through your actions.

There are several types of medication that can reduce symptoms of anxiety disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—a class of antidepressants—are commonly prescribed for long-term treatment. Other frequently utilized medications for anxiety are beta blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, and benzodiazepines. Always consult with a healthcare professional prior to starting or stopping any medication. 

Benefits of online therapy

If you don’t believe you’re ready to work with a therapist in person, you can take advantage of online therapy services. Working with a licensed mental health professional through an online therapy platform can empower you to get the help you deserve from the comfort of your home. You can choose between video calls, phone calls, and online chat for your sessions, potentially helping you feel even more comfortable with the therapy process.

Effectiveness of online therapy

A 2021 systematic review investigated the effectiveness of online therapy for treating generalized anxiety disorder. The results generally supported the efficacy of internet-delivered treatments for GAD. Online therapy may also be a valid treatment option for other forms of anxiety.


If you experience a sudden, intense onset of physical and mental anxiety symptoms, you might describe it as an anxiety attack. Although some anxiety can be a normal part of life, it can be harmful when it’s experienced frequently. You can cope with symptoms of anxiety by practicing stress management techniques, engaging in self-care, connecting with your social circle, identifying your triggers, and exercising regularly. Working with a licensed therapist online or in person can also be beneficial.
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