- Mental Health
Anxiety Attack Symptoms - What is an anxiety attack and how to spot one
You feel it coming. Suddenly you start feeling dizzy, your heart feels like it will rip out of your chest, your hands start trembling and sweating and your head becomes heavy with fear. You're scared and you feel alone.
Anyone that has experienced an anxiety attack knows that these things are no laughing matter. During an anxiety attack the person starts feeling an intense (and sometimes unreasonable) and uncontrollable fear.
The last time I felt an anxiety attack I felt an immense amount of pressure in my chest. My heart was racing so fast that Speedy Gonzalez would have been put to shame by it. My body felt like a pressure cooker. I was so scared I thought I was having a heart attack, and then suddenly I started crying, sobbing like a little child who just lost her favorite toy. And then the pressure waned. While my tears were falling uncontrollaby down my face, I started feeling relief, and after a good 15 minutes of pure, uninhibited bawling I felt almost as good as new.
What are the symptoms of an anxiety attack?
If I could describe all of the symptoms in a few words, it would be: it feels like you're gonna die. Yes, it's that bad. But let's go through them one by one.
Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks
Panic attacks are not the same thing as anxiety attacks. In fact, the term "anxiety attacks" isn't even included in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Anxiety is a term used to describe a series of symptoms that can be felt chronically or for long periods of time. Panic is anxiety at its peak.
Anxiety is the feeling you get when you feel, well, anxious. When a person is anxious, they still retain certain level of reason, and could potentially minimize or calm down their fears without requiring much help. However, when a person is in panic, reason goes out the window, and the brain is reduced to nothing but basic survival skills.
However, the terms anxiety and panic attacks have become interchangeable, at least among the non-psychiatric population. For the purposes of this hub, I will use the term anxiety attack, since this is the name that most people use to refer to panic attacks, but now you know the difference.
What are anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks are the way your body responds to extreme stress or extreme fear. It's the way your body prepares to respond to what it perceives to be a great danger, and therefore begins releasing massive amounts of adrenaline. Your brain stops thinking and your body instincts take over. It's your fight-or-flight response at its utmost. Generally, the first physical symptoms of an anxiety attack are:
- Increased, shallow breathing
- Increased blood pressure
- Shaking of the biggest muscles in your body (legs, arms)
Even though we all have bodies that come equipped to react to fear, not everyone will suffer an anxiety attack. The chances of anyone suffering an anxiety attack increase depending on genetics and even on your sex. You have higher chances of experiencing one of these attacks if you have any family history of Generalized Anxiety Disorder or if you're a woman.
If you're an anxious person, you might want to read these too...
Many people confuse the beginning of an anxiety attack with a heart attack. And it's easy to see why. One of the first symptoms of anxiety attacks is chest pressure that slowly turns into pain, which just adds more fear to your horror. Don't worry, most heart attacks don't start with chest pain. So if you start feeling chest pain that you think might be related to anxiety, start breathing deeply until you slowly calm down. You will see how your pain starts diminishing.
You feel like someone is holding a pillow to your face, and suddenly your breathing becomes very shallow and rapid. Once again, breathe deeply and count as you inhale (1-4) and count as you exhale (1-7). Let your exhale be longer than your inhale.
Since your body is getting ready to fight or flee, it starts getting very hot. Your body feels the temperature rising and it starts trying to cool you down and you start sweating like a pig.
Anxiety attacks and you.
Have you ever had an anxiety or panic attack?
Rapid heart beat or palpitations
Anxiety increases the amount of adrenaline in your body, and adrenaline increases your heart beats.
A "lump" in your throat
Have you ever had this feeling? Like you have a lump in your throat that doesn't let you talk or swallow? Most of us get that feeling when we are trying to stop ourselves from crying, but you can also get this feeling before or during an anxiety attack. This feeling actually has a name: Globus Hystericus Syndrome. (Bet you didn't know that. High five if you did!)
This happens because anxiety causes even your throat muscles to contract, thus giving you that "lump" in your throat.
Shivering, chills or shaking
You shake when you're scared, you will shake even more when you're super scared or anxious.
Neck and shoulder pain
Usually, when muscles contract due to stress or anxiety, the first ones to tense up are your neck, shoulder and back muscles, so it is only natural that you will feel pain in these areas of your body.
Face and/or head numbness
This one is especially scary! You might think you're having some kind of stroke or facial paralysis, but usually this is just another signal of extreme anxiety and stress. This might cause you to have tension headaches (when you feel like something is tight around your head), or even pains similar to toothache, which is another signal that your jaws and face muscles are as tight as your stress.
During fight-or-flight, your body decides there are better uses for your blood than keeping your face looking healthy and rosy. It sends as much blood as possible to your muscles so that they can be ready to use as soon as you need them. Sadly, our bodies have a hard time differentiating between real fight-or-flight situations and anxiety attacks. (I know, that makes me sad too...)
Your digestive system uses a lot of blood to digest and absorb all the necessary nutrients. However, during an anxiety attack, your body decides you might need your blood in your muscles rather than in your gut. This leaves you with feelings of indigestion, constipation, diarrhea or heartburn.
Feeling small shocks in different parts of your body
I remember one night I woke up to a loud noise. I opened my eyes and suddenly felt something akin to a small explosion in the back of my head. It felt as if a great electrical shock had popped a water balloon inside of my head. The water then started running all over my head, because, just after the "explosion" I felt coolness. Needless to say this freaked me out even more than I already was.
During an anxiety attack, your nerves (which are electrically charged) can fire in awkward ways, making you feel like you're being shocked left and right, or leaving you with "tiny explosion" sensations.
This may sound a bit contradictory, so bear with me. During an anxiety attack, your body goes into high fight-or-flight response, which means your body is getting ready to act as a superhero if required. A superhero needs great, focused vision, so your pupils dilate. And for a second or two, your vision might be really good, but then it becomes so focused that everything else around starts getting blurry. So pupil dilation might cause good vision for a very small amount of time, but nothing too long for you to notice.
The kind of noises you might hear during an anxiety attack are ringing or buzzing noises. This is known as tinnitus.
Hallucinations can be particularly scary because you feel like you are going crazy. You start seeing and/or hearing things that no one else can see or hear. However, know that hallucinations can be quite common among people that suffer extreme anxiety. However, just because you're not having hallucinations doesn't mean that you're not having an anxiety attack.
People with extreme anxiety can start to feel like everything else around them is not real, or that they're living in a dream.
Anxiety attacks can be really scary, but don't get discouraged! Keep working at controlling your anxiety, and you'll see that one day you will be able to live free of constant extreme anxiety.