What is an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack is another name for a panic attack. It occurs when you experience extreme and debilitating symptoms of anxiety. This includes rapid breathing, shaking, uncontrollable and unrealistic negative thoughts (some so extreme they can make you believe you are going to die) sweating and flushing.
Although anxiety attacks are brief episodes, they can be extremely scary and the fear of experiencing another anxiety attack may stay with you for significantly longer than the attack itself. It is important to remember that no matter how severe an anxiety attack is, it is not life-threatening and it will not last for more than 15 minutes.
What causes anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks are triggered by stress in our lives. Some people are more susceptible to stress or vulnerable to anxiety than others. The stress may come when a perceived danger looms, be that something physical such as a fierce dog coming in our direction or something emotionally stressful such as a forthcoming interview or exam.
The burst of adrenaline and nerve impulses which we have in response to stressful situations can encourage a 'fight or flight' response, the very same mechanism that used to get us out of trouble when we had a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
An anxiety attack occurs when these natural responses are exaggerated. Instead of being effective, we freeze and are unable to function. Adrenalin is released into our system with the following physiological results:
- The heart beats faster to pump more blood around the body - this causes our heart to pound
- Blood is diverted away from the digestive tract, to the brain, heart, lungs and muscles
- Breathing speeds up to get oxygen to the muscles as quickly as possible – we take short shallow breaths
- Sweat levels increase to get rid of toxins and stop the body from overheating - this is why we perspire when we are feeling anxious or nervous
- Blood sugar levels rise sharply, delivering more glucose to the brain and muscles
- Blood vessels constrict, increasing blood pressure and sending more blood to the organs – we feel cold and shivery.
Anxiety attacks give rise to similar symptoms to those of panic attacks.
People may be experiencing more anxiety attacks or panic attacks because general stress levels are higher and their adrenal glands are so ‘on edge’ that the smallest problem triggers an adrenalin response.
How can I prevent or treat anxiety attacks?
If you feel your anxiety levels rising, you can pre-empt an anxiety attack by trying to keep your breathing slow. Often, the attack can be abated in the initial stages if you can control your breathing and relax your muscles.
If your breathing becomes rapid and out of control, then breathing into a paper bag will reduce this problem and prevent the onset of symptoms such as muscle tension and shaking occurring.
For more tips, see our page on how to stop a panic attack.
Anxiety attacks are often a one-off episode occurring as a result of an extremely stressful situation. However, if you suffer repeated and regular anxiety attacks, you should speak to your doctor as the attacks may have an underlying cause.
Generally speaking, psychological treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are effective in treating anxiety or panic attacks, as are certain herbal remedies, particularly Valerian or Passiflora.
See our page on panic attack treatments for more information.
Only if these types of treatment have not worked should you consider taking conventional medicines. These will often be sedatives or anti-depressants.