science of us

What’s an Anxiety Attack and How Do I Stop It?

Photo: Nanette Hoogslag/Getty Images/Ikon Images

At the basic level, anxiety is an emotion we all feel at some point in our lives. But more than that, over 40 million U.S. adults suffer from anxiety disorders — so that’s 18 percent of the U.S. population. A lot of my friends and colleagues have been open about seeking treatment for their own struggles with anxiety and depression, but not everyone has all the information they need to cope.

Here, Dr. James Murrough, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, shares some tips for recognizing anxiety, stopping attacks, and managing symptoms.

What is anxiety?

According to Murrough, anxiety can encompass many things. “Anxiety, in general, is a feeling of fear, worry, apprehension, or dread. It is something that is an ubiquitous part of the human experience,” Murrough explains. “But like so many things in psychiatry, there can be an extreme version of it.”

What’s an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder is typically defined as excessive fear and worry about everyday situations, or anxiety which interferes with one’s ability to function in daily life. For people with clinical anxiety, the worry can be overwhelming. Some people are prone to more persistent, low-grade anxiety, while others may experience anxiety primarily in short, intense bursts. (These forms aren’t mutually exclusive, and plenty of people experience both.) These shorter-term bouts of anxiety are usually called panic attacks, though some people might call them anxiety attacks.

Someone with an anxiety disorder experiences a “mental state of fear, apprehension, worry, dread, which is so extreme in either its intensity or duration that it’s outside the bounds of normal human experience and results in some type of specific functional impairment,” Murrough says.

Do I have an anxiety disorder?

Remember, feeling some degree of anxiety is normal — if you’re studying for a test, for example, your anxiety might even motivate you to study a couple of extra hours, which could be a good thing. And even if you’re still feeling anxious as you walk into the classroom, receive the test booklet, and sit down at your desk, anxiety will often start to melt away as you focus on the task at hand. But for certain people, according to Murrough, that might not be the case.

A person with clinical levels of anxiety might have the whole melting-away-of-their-worries thing happen. But in some instances, they instead might go from being nervous to having a full-fledged panic attack (often referred to as an anxiety attack, although Murrough told me that “anxiety attack” is not a clinical term — and often when you think you’re having an anxiety attack it’s actually a panic attack), which could preclude them performing well or from even finishing the test.

What does a panic attack feel like?

Here are some basic symptoms:
• A racing heart
• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
• Sweating
• Shaking
• Nausea
• Dizziness
• Tingling sensations
• Chills (or hot flashes)

There are other symptoms that may come with a panic attack, but those listed above are the main ones. Panic attacks usually have a sudden onset and are accompanied by that tell-tale overwhelming fear, worry, or dread.

How long does a panic attack last?

Most of the time, they last up to 10 minutes, though they can persist for as long to 20 or 30 minutes. Because panic attacks are a response to a perceived threat, causing a surge in adrenaline, they usually can’t sustain much longer than that. It is, however, possible to have waves of panic attacks (though it’s rare), or to experience lingering aftereffect symptoms after the initial attack has subsided. If you feel like your anxiety attack isn’t going away, it’s likely because the experience was scary, and left you feeling worried you’ll have another one. This is totally normal, and it’s important to remind yourself that panic attacks aren’t physically dangerous.

Does a panic attack feel like a heart attack?

It can! Murrough says that he often sees patients at Mount Sinai who think they’re having a heart attack but are actually having a panic attack. “They feel that there’s something terribly wrong — it’s very physical — and they feel like they’re dying or their heart is pounding in their chest,” he explains.

If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, and worried you might be having a heart attack, it may help to try some grounding exercises and/or deep breathing. Usually these things will help slow your heart rate and reduce chest pressure if you’re having a panic attack — whereas they won’t be helpful to someone having a heart attack.

How can I stop a panic attack?

Just like most things in life, stopping a panic attack from happening generally comes down to practice. According to Murrough, skills and techniques that a person can learn through cognitive behavioral therapy can help them learn how to control or stop the symptoms — before the symptoms even occur.

One such technique, he explains, is to close your eyes and try to remove yourself from the stimuli that’s around. Instead, focus on your breathing and count four beats while you breathe in, count one or two, and then count four beats as you breathe out. It’s best to practice this technique when you’re not already mid-panic attack — that way you’ll be ready to use it when you do experience pronounced anxiety.

How do I prevent a panic attack?

Anything that’s known to relieve stress — like regular exercise or just having a healthy lifestyle in general — can help reduce overall anxiety. Some people may find natural anxiety remedies effective, while others might require prescription medication to manage their symptoms. Working closely with a therapist on prevention and management techniques can also be very beneficial. But just as it’s helpful to have anxiety management tools, it’s also important not to feel guilty if and when you do experience a panic attack. Your body’s physical reactions aren’t always entirely within your control, and anxiety — while sometimes painful and often inconvenient — is human.

What’s a Panic Attack and How Do I Stop It?