What Is A "Stress Attack" And How Can You Prevent One?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress can manifest itself in a number of ways. Some manifestations may be easy to perceive, while others might not be. Stress can slowly build up inside you, and while you might be fully aware of it, you might not understand how serious the situation is until you have a distressing episode, such as a “stress attack.” 

Panic and anxiety attacks can be triggered by stress

“Stress attack” is not a clinical term

If you have ever heard someone say that they had a "stress attack," they were most likely referring to a panic attack or anxiety attack.

The term stress attack isn’t typically used in the medical and mental health fields. Instead, professionals typically use the terms panic attack and anxiety attack, which are different. 

We’ll discuss both below and look at their similarities and differences. 

Panic attacks

A panic attack is something that usually comes on suddenly. It typically involves overwhelming, intense feelings of fear. There are often frightening physical symptoms that usually accompany panic attacks, such as nausea, shortness of breath, and a rapid heartbeat. An unexpected panic attack can occur without an obvious cause, regardless of whether a person is feeling calm or anxious prior to an attack. 

Anxiety attacks

Unlike the term panic attack, the term anxiety attack doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Anxiety attacks often come along gradually rather than spontaneously. They can be the result of a gradual buildup of anxiety, but they can also be a response to a stressful situation. 

Symptoms

Panic attacks tend to be abrupt and include feelings of intense fear and impending doom. To be diagnosed as having experienced a panic attack, a person must have at least four of the following 13 symptoms from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):

  • Heart palpitations, a pounding heart, or an accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Heat or cold sensations 
  • Sensations of smothering or shortness of breath
  • Feeling(s) of choking
  • Chest pains or discomfort
  • Nausea or gastrointestinal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization or depersonalization
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling)

Some of the physical sensations of anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be the same. In both situations, a person typically feels fear. They might have heart palpitations or chest pain. However, with a panic attack, the symptoms may be more intense, but they tend to reach their peak within 10 minutes. You may perspire, have shortness of breath, or tremble or shake. 

Some people who have a panic attack for the first time mistakenly think that they are having a heart attack or a similar cardiac episode. They might call 911 and get rushed to the emergency room before they figure out what they are actually experiencing. 

One of the differences between anxiety and panic attacks is that with panic attacks, a person may have symptoms of depersonalization (feeling outside their body) or derealization (feeling detached from their environment). They may also have a sense that they are going to die. People with anxiety attacks don’t tend to experience these symptoms. 

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is a condition that's characterized by recurring, unexpected panic attacks. According to Medscape, “Patients with panic disorder have recurring episodes of panic, with the fear of recurrent attack resulting in significant behavioral changes (e.g., avoiding situations or locations) and worry about the implications of the attack or its consequences (e.g., losing control, going crazy, dying).”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, not everyone who has one panic attack will necessarily receive a diagnosis of panic disorder. However, the absence of panic disorder doesn’t mean that a person wouldn’t benefit from support. Therapy can be beneficial for those who experience stress or occasional panic attacks.

There are a number of risk factors for developing panic disorder, such as having a family history of panic attacks and having experienced a traumatic event. People with panic disorder may have varying experiences in terms of the unique symptoms they experience during a panic attack. Panic attack symptoms can be scary but generally aren't life-threatening. 

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

Alongside panic disorder, other anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobia. Research shows that the age of onset for panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder tends to be between 21 and 35, but some people may develop these conditions at an earlier age.

What triggers anxiety attacks?

Stress can be a potential trigger for anxiety symptoms. If you find that fear overwhelms you or has a significant impact on your life, it may help to reach out for support. Various forms of mental health treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), may help with anxiety disorders, stress, and other concerns.

Can stress make you sick?

Stress is associated with several different mental and physical symptoms. Prolonged stress is associated with concerns such as high blood pressure, an increased risk of depression symptoms, an increased risk of having a heart attack, and an increased risk of anxiety symptoms. When stress is ongoing, it may even lead to early mortality. 

If you experience ongoing stress, symptoms of anxiety disorders (including panic disorder and other anxiety disorders), or symptoms of depression, it may help to reach out to a medical or mental health professional. No matter what you're going through, whether it’s stress, panic attack symptoms, or something else, there are evidence-based treatments available.

How do panic and anxiety attacks relate to stress?

Although panic and anxiety attacks are not the same, stress can play a part in both cases. In the case of an anxiety attack, episodic stress may lead to this extreme reaction. If you have an anxiety disorder that has been diagnosed, then you may be aware of the things that cause you fear or worry. If the condition is left untreated, then anxiety attacks can cause significant disruptions for you, especially if they take place at work, in social situations, or any time that you are out in public.'

As for panic attacks, one might occur if you are subjected to stress triggers sometime during your day. Maybe you aren't entirely aware of what it is that frightens you or causes you such worry until you're faced with one of those triggers in a glaring and immediate way. Panic attacks can also come seemingly out of nowhere, with no easily identifiable trigger.

Coping with "stress attacks"

Anxiety medications are available by prescription and may help you cope with your stressors. There are medications that you are meant to be taken daily, and others can be taken only as needed if you know that you’re going into a situation in which you usually experience anxiety. Also, a doctor may prescribe certain medications only for times when you experience an attack.

In addition to medications, you may benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist. A therapist may be able to help you uncover the reasons behind your anxiety or panic attacks. They may also be able to help you find ways to manage your symptoms during an attack.

Panic and anxiety attacks can be triggered by stress

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used for treating stress and anxiety by helping you learn to adjust your thinking and behaviors around the things that create anxiety. A therapist may also be able to help you learn stress-relief strategies to help you avoid panic attacks, as well as strategies to implement, such as deep breathing techniques, to calm yourself back down should a panic attack occur. CBT has been found to help patients with panic disorder reduce their physiological symptoms.

If anxiety or panic attacks make it difficult to leave home to attend therapy, you might consider trying online therapy. Studies have found that online therapy is effective for a number of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression.  

Online therapy offers a number of advantages, such as being able to meet with a therapist from the comfort of your home at a time that suits your schedule. Also, with online therapy, you have a larger pool of therapists from which to choose. BetterHelp has a network of more than 30,000 licensed therapists, so you can choose someone who has experience helping people overcome stress, anxiety, and panic attacks. 

Takeaway

You may have heard people talk about “stress attacks,” but these are most likely anxiety attacks or panic attacks. Regardless of what type of attacks you may be experiencing, you don’t have to face them alone. There are evidence-based treatments for both anxiety and panic attacks, and a licensed therapist can walk you through effective treatments for both. 

If your symptoms include being hesitant to visit a therapist’s office, you may benefit from online therapy. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people reduce or eliminate anxiety and panic attacks. Take the first step toward relief from stress and anxiety, and reach out to BetterHelp.

Ease stress and mental exhaustion
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started