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How to recognize an anxiety attack

Anxiety can grow when a person is afraid that something bad will happen. This is a non-medical term referring to a feeling of anxiety or worry that is often related to a particular problem or concern.

Anxiety has been linked to stress. This also includes physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, as well as feelings of anxiety and concern.

It’s different from a panic attack which is a panic disorder symptom. Anxiety is often related to a single occurrence or circumstance, though this is not always the case.

Whereas, a panic attack may occur without any clear cause and the symptoms are much more serious than the anxiety symptoms.

However, if the stress and anxiety levels remain for a long time, there could be more issues.

Important facts about anxiety

  • An anxiety attack usually involves a fear of some specific occurrence or problem that could happen.
  • Symptoms include worry, restlessness, and possibly physical symptoms, such as changes in heart rate.
  • Anxiety is different from a panic attack, but it can occur as part of an anxiety or panic disorder.

Anxiety attack versus panic attack

Anxiety can be a panic symptom but it’s different from a panic attack.

What are the differences?

Exams and workplace stress can lead to anxiety.
Exams and workplace stress can lead to anxiety.

Here are some of the features that distinguish them.

An anxiety attack, or anxiety:

  • can have a specific trigger, such as an exam, workplace issues, a health issue, or a relationship problem
  • is not a diagnosable condition
  • is less severe than a panic attack
  • usually develops gradually when a person feels anxious
  • involves physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or “knot in the stomach

A panic attack:

  • does not have a specific trigger
  • can be a symptom of panic disorder, a diagnosable condition
  • has severe symptoms
  • can happen whether a person feels calm or anxious
  • involves physical symptoms and feelings of terror so intense that the person fears a total loss of control or imminent death
  • often occurs suddenly and unexpectedly and last between a few minutes and an hour, although the negative impact may continue

The word “anxiety attack” is not specified in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-V) of the American Psychological Association ( APA).

Yet panic attacks are however, a symptom of panic disorder in the DSM-V. The panic condition should only be treated by a trained doctor.

Difference in symptoms

Both panic and anxiety may involve terror, heart beating or pacing, lightheadedness, chest pain, breathing difficulties and irrational thoughts.

These are however even more serious in a panic attack. The person may honestly believe they’re going to die.

When a person experiences a panic attack or an anxiety disorder a person is more likely to need medical attention.

Differences in how they start

Anxiety may be an response to a specific worry or fear. It tends to grow slowly, and at the beginning, an individual is typically concerned or worried. It can be moderate, medium or extreme. There might be a feeling that if this problem alone can be solved, then everything will be perfect.

Without warning a panic attack will happen and there is no way to avoid it. Whether or not a person feels relaxed or anxious, and even during sleep may happen. Sometimes there’s no apparent cause, and the level of fear is out of proportion with the trigger. In fact, according to the APA, the reaction is unrelated to the situation.

Differences in duration

Anxiety is also correlated with a particular situation. This continues to build up and carry on for a while.

A panic attack immediately starts, symptoms peak after 10 minutes, and typically decreases after about 30 minutes, though the effects may last longer. Anxiety does not usually peak in this way, but some people with anxiety may advance to panic attacks.

Can anxiety lead to panic?

A person with a panic disorder may have fear that they may be having a panic attack. The confusion about whether or when an attack will occur may lead to anxiety between the attacks.

Anxiety can cause a panic attack on an person with panic disorder. The fear of getting a panic attack can affect the actions and ability of the person to work in daily life.

The APA indicates there may be a panic condition underlying biological factor but a clear marker has not yet been identified by scientists.

Symptoms of anxiety

Headaches and muscle tension can result from anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • worry and apprehension
  • restlessness
  • sleep problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • sadness
  • feeling pressure and hurried
  • Physical symptoms include:
  • changes in heart rate
  • tension in the head or neck
  • headache
  • nausea or diarrhea
  • sweating
  • dry mouth
  • tightness in the throat and difficulty breathing
  • trembling or shaking
  • feeling faint

Almost all anxiety cases will contain all of those signs. Depending on the cause and how the person responds to it, anxiety may be mild , moderate or severe.

For example , some people may feel slightly apprehensive when faced with an exam, while others may experience all of the above symptoms.

Typically symptoms go away as the danger or perceived threat passes.

Anxiety that lasts for a long time or is caused by particular incidents may be a symptom of another disorder, such as a disorder of social anxiety.


Anxiety often results from stress or feeling overwhelmed.

Common causes of anxiety include:

  • work pressure
  • financial pressure
  • family or relationships problems
  • divorce, separation, or bereavement
  • concerns about parenthood or being a caregiver
  • problems coping with administrative issues or technology
  • changing life situations, such as moving house or changing jobs
  • reduced mobility or physical function
  • loss of mental function, for example, short-term memory
  • having a diagnosis of a chronic health condition, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), diabetes, and others

It can also be linked to another factor or health condition, such as:

  • social or another phobia
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • genetic factors
  • major stress or susceptibility to stress
  • changes in the brain
  • a history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • excessive caffeine use
  • the use of some medications
  • a recent or past traumatic experience

Triggers of anxiety could include:

  • public speaking
  • exposure to a phobia trigger
  • a fear of having a panic attack

Sometimes, anxiety can also stem from a psychological disorder.

Types of anxiety disorder

There are several anxiety disorders listed as multiple. Each has various types of symptoms which can be caused in certain cases by particular circumstances.

Panic disorder (PD): At least two panic attacks are involved, followed by the persistent fear of potential assaults. People with panic disorder can lose a job, refuse to travel or leave home, or avoid something that they feel may cause an anxiety attack altogether.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): It is a persistent state of anxiety over a variety of individuals life events or behaviors.

Phobic disorder: It involves an incapacitating and irrational anxiety about an object or circumstance, such as fear of spiders or open spaces (claustrophobia). Many people with phobic disorder know their fear is unfounded.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Unwanted repetitive thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions) are associated with this condition.


The answer that contributes to stress and anxiety is built to help us cope in temporarily arising, challenging circumstances.

Adrenaline is the substance involved in responding to fight-or – flight. A sudden release of this hormone trains the body to run away from danger or physically fight the danger.

Under normal conditions, levels of adrenaline quickly return to normal until the anxiety is removed. And, if the anxiety persists and the levels of adrenaline remain high, there may be more issues.

Persistent stress and anxiety can lead to other problems, such as:

Continuous stress has been related to immune, digestive, sleep and reproductive problems.

Problems of physical health which may occur include:

When it is stressful or recurrent it is necessary to take action or seek treatment to relieve stress and anxiety.

Lifestyle tips

Tips for managing stress and anxiety include:

It is important to take time out to relax.
It is important to take time out to relax.

Know the signs: You might be able to take some action if you know when to recognize the signs that you’re stressed or overly anxious. Headaches, an inability to sleep or overeating can all be signs that it’s time to take a break or ask for assistance.

Know your triggers: You will be able to take action if you can learn to understand what makes you feel anxious. Maybe you did take on too many tasks? Can you please ask anyone to help? Would alcohol or coffee make it worse? Consider cutting down.

Diet: Too much fast food or too little exercise can result in a busy lifestyle. Try to make time to sit down for a healthy meal, or take a home-made lunch with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to the office, rather than grab a burger.

Exercise: To sit in front of a computer screen for long periods of time or while driving takes its toll. Try a 30-minute break and take a day’s walk to boost your sense of wellbeing.

Learn some methods of relaxation: Relaxing exercise, meditation, and other approaches can help to relieve stress and anxiety. There is some evidence that aromatherapy use can help to relieve stress, but further work is needed.

Try a new activity: Music, meditation, gardening, or joining a chorus, yoga , pilates, or other group can ease stress and take your mind off your worries for a while. You may come across people with similar concerns with whom you can share your feelings.

Be social: spend time with friends and family or find a place where, for example, by volunteering or joining a support group, you can connect with others. You may find that they can offer emotional and practical support, as well as remove your mind from the problem at hand.

Set goals: For example , if you feel frustrated by financial or logistical issues, sit down and make a plan. Set goals and objectives as you address them and cross them off.


Treatment options for anxiety and related problems include:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • medications, such as some types of antidepressants
  • support groups for people with specific conditions

Someone who feels overwhelmed by stress or anxiety should see a counselling health professional. Getting assistance early can help prevent other issues from arising.

It is important to see a properly trained and skilled person when you are considering seeking medical help. This website offers a toolkit on how to find a licensed psychologist in your city.

If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, you should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The line is available 24-hour, 7-day weekly. Both calls are handled confidentially.

Chukwuebuka Martins

Chukwuebuka Martins is a writer, researcher, and health enthusiast who specializes in human physiology. He takes great pleasure in penning informative articles on many aspects of physical wellness, which he then thoroughly enjoys sharing to the general public.