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Anxiety Attacks & Anxiety Disorders

Signs, Symptoms, and Finding Treatment that Works for You

Anxiety Attacks and Disorders: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

It’s normal to feel anxious when facing a challenging situation, such as a job interview, a tough exam, or a blind date. But if your worries and fears seem overwhelming and interfere with your daily life, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. There are many different types of anxiety disorders—and many effective treatments and self-help strategies. Once you understand your anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to reduce your symptoms and regain control of your life.

Understanding anxiety disorders

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to danger, an automatic alarm that goes off when you feel threatened, under pressure, or are facing a stressful situation.

In moderation, anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, anxiety can help you stay alert and focused, spur you to action, and motivate you to solve problems. But when anxiety is constant or overwhelming, when it interferes with your relationships and activities, it stops being functional—that’s when you’ve crossed the line from normal, productive anxiety into the territory of anxiety disorders.

Do your symptoms indicate an anxiety disorder?

If you identify with several of the following signs and symptoms, and they just won’t go away, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

  • Are you constantly tense, worried, or on edge?
  • Does your anxiety interfere with your work, school, or family responsibilities?
  • Are you plagued by fears that you know are irrational, but can’t shake?
  • Do you believe that something bad will happen if certain things aren’t done a certain way?
  • Do you avoid everyday situations or activities because they cause you anxiety?
  • Do you experience sudden, unexpected attacks of heart-pounding panic?
  • Do you feel like danger and catastrophe are around every corner?

Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders

Anxiety Attacks and Disorders: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Because anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything.

Despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders share one major symptom: persistent or severe fear or worry in situations where most people wouldn’t feel threatened.

Emotional symptoms of anxiety

In addition to the primary symptoms of irrational and excessive fear and worry, other common emotional symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Watching for signs of danger
  • Feeling like your mind’s gone blank
  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Watching for signs of danger
  • Feeling like your mind’s gone blank

Physical symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety is more than just a feeling. As a product of the body’s fight-or-flight response, anxiety involves a wide range of physical symptoms. Because of the numerous physical symptoms, anxiety sufferers often mistake their disorder for a medical illness. They may visit many doctors and make numerous trips to the hospital before their anxiety disorder is discovered.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Stomach upset or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Stomach upset or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

The link between anxiety symptoms and depression

Many people with anxiety disorders also suffer from depression at some point. Anxiety and depression are believed to stem from the same biological vulnerability, which may explain why they so often go hand-in-hand. Since depression makes anxiety worse (and vice versa), it’s important to seek treatment for both conditions.

Anxiety attacks and their symptoms

Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks, are episodes of intense panic or fear. Anxiety attacks usually occur suddenly and without warning. Sometimes there’s an obvious trigger— getting stuck in an elevator, for example, or thinking about the big speech you have to give—but in other cases, the attacks come out of the blue.

Anxiety attacks usually peak within ten minutes, and they rarely last more than thirty minutes. But during that short time, the terror can be so severe that you feel as if you’re about to die or totally lose control. The physical symptoms of anxiety attacks are themselves so frightening that many people believe they’re having a heart attack. After an anxiety attack is over, you may be worried about having another one, particularly in a public place where help isn’t available or you can’t easily escape.

Symptoms of anxiety attacks include:

  • Surge of overwhelming panic
  • Feeling of losing control or going crazy
  • Heart palpitations or chest pain
  • Feeling like you’re going to pass out
  • Trouble breathing or choking sensation
  • Hyperventilation
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Feeling detached or unreal
  • Surge of overwhelming panic
  • Feeling of losing control or going crazy
  • Heart palpitations or chest pain
  • Feeling like you’re going to pass out
  • Trouble breathing or choking sensation
  • Hyperventilation
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Feeling detached or unreal

Types of anxiety disorders

There are six major types of anxiety disorders, each with their own distinct symptom profile: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder (anxiety attacks), phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Helpguide.org offers an entire article on each type of anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorderIf constant worries and fears distract you from your day-to-day activities or you’re troubled by a persistent feeling that something bad is going to happen, you may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with GAD are chronic worrywarts who feel anxious nearly all of the time, though they may not even know why. Anxiety related to GAD often shows up as physical symptoms like insomnia, stomach upset, restlessness, and fatigue. Learn more.

Anxiety attacks (Panic disorder)

Anxiety attacks (Panic disorder)Panic disorder is characterized by repeated, unexpected panic attacks, as well as fear of experiencing another episode. Panic disorder may also be accompanied by agoraphobia, which is a fear of being in places where escape or help would be difficult in the event of a panic attack. If you have agoraphobia, you are likely to avoid public places such as shopping malls or confined spaces such as an airplane. Learn more.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorderObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control. If you have OCD, you may be troubled by obsessions, such as a recurring worry that you forgot to turn off the oven or that you might hurt someone. You may also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, such as washing your hands over and over. Learn more.

Phobia

PhobiaA phobia is an unrealistic or exaggerated fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that in reality presents little to no danger. Common phobias include fear of animals such as snakes and spiders, fear of flying, and fear of heights. In the case of a severe phobia, you might go to extreme lengths to avoid the thing you fear. Unfortunately, avoidance only strengthens the phobia. Learn more.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety disorderIf you have a debilitating fear of being seen negatively by others and humiliated in public, you may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. Social anxiety disorder can be thought of as extreme shyness. In severe cases, social situations are avoided altogether. Performance anxiety (better known as stage fright) is the most common type of social phobia. Learn more.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorderPost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD can be thought of as a panic attack that rarely, if ever, lets up. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks or nightmares about what happened, hypervigilance, startling easily, withdrawing from others, and avoiding situations that remind you of the event. Learn more.

Self-help for anxiety, anxiety attacks, and anxiety disorders

Not everyone who worries a lot has an anxiety disorder. You may be anxious because of an overly demanding schedule, lack of exercise or sleep, pressure at home or work, or even from too much coffee.

The bottom line is that if your lifestyle is unhealthy and stressful, you’re more likely to feel anxious—whether or not you have an anxiety disorder. So if you feel like you worry too much, take some time to evaluate how well you’re caring for yourself.

  • Do you make time each day for relaxation and fun?
  • Are you getting the emotional support you need?
  • Are you taking care of your body?
  • Are you overloaded with responsibilities?
  • Do you ask for help when you need it?

If your stress levels are through the roof, think about how you can bring your life back into balance. There may be responsibilities you can give up, turn down, or delegate to others. If you’re feeling isolated or unsupported, find someone you trust to confide in. Just talking about your worries can make them seem less frightening.

Self-help for anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders #1: Challenge negative thoughts

  • Write down your worries. Keep a pad and pencil on you, or type on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. When you experience anxiety, write down your worries. Writing down is harder work than simply thinking them, so your negative thoughts are likely to disappear sooner.
  • Create an anxiety worry period. Choose one or two 10 minute “worry periods” each day, time you can devote to anxiety. During your worry period, focus only on negative, anxious thoughts without trying to correct them. The rest of the day, however, is to be designated free of anxiety. When anxious thoughts come into your head during the day, write them down and “postpone” them to your worry period.
  • Accept uncertainty. Unfortunately, worrying about all the things that could go wrong doesn’t make life any more predictable—it only keeps you from enjoying the good things happening in the present. Learn to accept uncertainty and not require immediate solutions to life’s problems.

Self-help for anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders #2: Take care of yourself

  • Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing can reduce anxiety symptoms and increase feelings of relaxation and emotional well-being.
  • Adopt healthy eating habits. Start the day right with breakfast, and continue with frequent small meals throughout the day. Going too long without eating leads to low blood sugar, which can make you feel more anxious.
  • Reduce alcohol and nicotine. They lead to more anxiety, not less.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days.
  • Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can exacerbate anxious thoughts and feelings, so try to get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep a night.

When to seek professional help for anxiety disorders

While self-help coping strategies for anxiety can be very effective, if your worries, fears, or anxiety attacks have become so great that they’re causing extreme distress or disrupting your daily routine, it is important to seek professional help.

If you’re experiencing a lot of physical anxiety symptoms, consider getting a medical checkup. Your doctor can check to make sure that your anxiety isn’t caused by a medical condition, such as a thyroid problem, hypoglycemia, or asthma. Since certain drugs and supplements can cause anxiety, your doctor will also want to know about any prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and recreational drugs you’re taking.

If your physician rules out a medical cause, the next step is to consult with a therapist who has experience treating anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders. The therapist will work with you to determine the cause and type of your anxiety disorder and devise a course of treatment.

Treatment options for anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders respond very well to treatment—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with behavioral therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Sometimes complementary or alternative treatments may also be helpful.

Behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. Behavioral therapy for anxiety usually takes between 5 and 20 weekly sessions.

  • Cognitive-behavior therapy focuses on thoughts—or cognitions—in addition to behaviors. In anxiety disorder treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you identify and challenge the negative thinking patterns and irrational beliefs that fuel your anxiety.
  • Exposure therapy for anxiety disorder treatment encourages you to confront your fears in a safe, controlled environment. Through repeated exposures to the feared object or situation, either in your imagination or in reality, you gain a greater sense of control. As you face your fear without being harmed, your anxiety gradually diminishes.

Medication for anxiety disorders

Is anxiety medication right for you?

Anxiety medications can be habit forming and cause unwanted side effects, so be sure to research your options. It’s important to weigh the benefits and risks so you can make an informed decision about whether anxiety medication is the right treatment for you.

A variety of medications, including benzodiazepines and antidepressants, are used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. But medication is most effective when combined with behavioral therapy and anxiety self-help strategies. Medication may sometimes be used in the short-term to relieve severe anxiety symptoms so that other forms of therapy can be pursued.

Is anxiety medication right for you?

Anxiety medications can be habit forming and cause unwanted side effects, so be sure to research your options. It’s important to weigh the benefits and risks so you can make an informed decision about whether anxiety medication is the right treatment for you.

Bring Your Life Into Balance Feeling Loved

Related Articles

Anxiety Treatment & Self-Help

How to Stop Worrying

How to Stop Worrying – Learn self-help strategies to train your brain to stay calm and help you break the habit of chronic worrying.

Therapy for Anxiety Disorders

Therapy for Anxiety Disorders – Learn about cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and other options.

Anxiety Medication

Anxiety Medication – Make informed and personal decisions by learning the facts and weighing the benefits against the risks.

Harvard Logo

Benefits of Mindfulness – Proven techniques to fight anxiety and improve your emotional well-being and physical health.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – Learn how to break free from this common anxiety disorder that involves chronic worrying, nervousness, and tension.

Anxiety Attacks and Panic Disorder

Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder – Learn about the causes of panic attacks, how to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic, and regain control of your life.

Teen depression guide for parents

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Learn how to get help for uncontrollable thoughts, irrational urges, or the compulsion to continually repeat the same rituals.

Phobias and Fears

Phobias & Fears – When fears are irrational and disabling, they are called phobias. Learn how to get help and overcome these fears.

Social Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia

Social Anxiety Disorder & Social Phobia – Learn to understand this disorder and be more comfortable in social situations.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Caused by a traumatic or terrifying past experience, PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, or constant fear.

Resources & References

Support organizations for anxiety disorders

National Alliance on Mental Illness Information Helpline – Trained volunteers can provide information, referrals, and support for those suffering from anxiety disorders in the U.S. Call 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday, 10 am-6 pm, Eastern time. (NAMI)

Find a therapist – Search for anxiety disorder treatment providers in the U.S. and find advice on selecting the right doctor or therapist. (Anxiety Disorders Association of America)

Find a Therapist – Searchable directory of licensed professionals who belong to the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. (Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies)

Anxiety UK – Information, support, and a dedicated helpline for UK sufferers and their families. (Anxiety UK)

Sangath, India – Non-profit, non-government organization providing mental health services in Goa, India. (Sangath)

Anxiety Disorders, Canada – Provides help to Canadians in the prevention, treatment, and management of anxiety disorders. (ADAC/ACTA)

South African Depression and Anxiety Disorders – Telephone counseling service operating from Johannesburg and a network of support groups across Southern Africa. (Anxiety Disorders Association of America)

Therapist Directory – Therapists in South Africa specializing in anxiety and panic disorders (Therapist Directory)

SANE Helpline – Provides information about symptoms, treatments, medications, where to go for support and help for carers in Australia. (SANE Australia).

Support Groups in Australia – List of anxiety disorder support groups in Australia. (Anxiety Disorders Association of America)

Social Anxiety Support Chat – Resource to chat with others suffering from social anxiety disorder, with users from all over the world. (Social Anxiety Support Chat)

Signs and symptoms of anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders

Anxiety Disorders – Guide to the different types of anxiety disorders, their symptoms, and how to get help. (National Institute of Mental Health)

Anxiety & Panic Attacks Symptoms – Extensive list of the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks. (National Panic & Anxiety Disorder News)

Treatment options for anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders

Anxiety Treatment Options – Article looks at the many treatment options for anxiety, including exercise and breathing techniques. (Better Health Channel)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Covers how cognitive behavior therapy is used to reduce and eliminate anxiety disorders. (University of Houston)

What are the Psychotherapeutic and Other Non-Drug Approaches to Anxiety Disorder? – Overview of therapies and complementary treatments for anxiety. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

Complementary treatments for anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders

Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms – Learn how even small amounts of exercise can help reduce anxiety. (Mayo Clinic)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Step by step guide to progressive muscle relaxation for the reduction of anxiety. (A Guide to Psychology and its Practice)

Biofeedback – Overview of biofeedback, a mind-body therapy that can teach you to control some of the symptoms of anxiety. (Mayo Clinic)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: May 2014.

©Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. This reprint is for information only and NOT a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Helpguide.org is an ad-free non-profit resource for supporting better mental health and lifestyle choices for adults and children.

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