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Anxiety Attack

What is an anxiety attack?

An anxiety attack is a short period of strong fear that happens for no reason that you know of. An anxiety attack is also known as a panic attack. An anxiety attack can be a one-time event, or can become an ongoing problem. If you have two or more anxiety attacks in a month, you may have a condition called panic or anxiety disorder. If anxiety attacks become severe (very bad), they may keep you from living a normal life.

What causes anxiety attacks?

  • Caregivers do not know for sure what causes anxiety attacks. Sometimes they are caused by being in a situation that you find upsetting. You may have them due to a stressful life event, such as getting divorced. You are more likely to have anxiety attacks if you also have another mental health problem. Other mental health problems include depression (feeling very sad most or all of the time), or alcoholism (abusing alcoholic drinks). Anxiety attacks may happen for no reason. Anxiety attacks can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender.
  • Some health conditions or medicines may cause anxiety attack symptoms. Using or withdrawing from alcohol or illegal drugs may also cause symptoms. Some people have anxiety attacks that are triggered (started) by the fear of having a future anxiety attack. You are more likely to have anxiety attacks if someone in your family also has them.

What are the signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack?

  • The symptoms felt during an anxiety attack can feel like symptoms of a serious health problem, such as a heart problem. On the other hand, some serious health problems can cause anxiety attacks, such as heart or breathing problems. Have your symptoms checked by a caregiver to make sure they are not caused by a serious health problem.
  • The main symptom of an anxiety attack is extreme fear. Other signs and symptoms are different from person to person. The same person may even have different signs and symptoms during repeat anxiety attacks. Signs and symptoms usually do not last longer than 30 minutes. Besides fear, other signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack may include:
    • Chest pain.
    • Dizziness, or feeling light-headed.
    • Fear of losing control or doing something embarrassing.
    • Feeling of being out of touch with people or things around you.
    • Having a feeling of doom, which is feeling like something very bad is going to happen. You may feel like you are about to die.
    • Heart palpitations (pal-pi-TAY-shuns), which is becoming suddenly aware of your heartbeat. You may feel like your heart is pounding, or beating too fast.
    • Sweating, trembling, or having hot or cold flashes.
    • Stomach discomfort or upset which may include nausea (feeling sick to your stomach) or diarrhea (loose, watery BMs).
    • Numbness (loss of feeling) or tingling in your hands or feet. You may have numbness or tingling of your lips or around your mouth.
    • You may feel like you cannot breathe. Some people may hyperventilate (heye-per-VEN-ti-layte) during an anxiety attack and not even notice it. Hyperventilation means that your breaths are too fast and shallow. Breathing this way can cause numbness or tingling in your hands and lips. Your fingers or toes may have cramping, or even curl up. During an anxiety attack, focus on taking very slow, deep breaths. You may need a friend or loved one to help you do this by breathing with you. Your caregiver may show you how to breathe in and out of a paper bag when you hyperventilate. Never use a plastic bag.
  • With panic or anxiety disorder, you may have anxiety attacks that happen often. These attacks often come without reason or warning. You may be troubled with a fear of having another anxiety attack. You may have a lot of anxiety attacks, followed by weeks or months without having any.
  • Some people become so fearful of having anxiety attacks that they are afraid to leave their house. This is called agoraphobia (ag-or-ah-FOH-bee-ah). People with agoraphobia may also fear being in crowds, or in any place where they cannot leave quickly.

How are anxiety attacks diagnosed and treated?

  • There is no test that can say for sure that you have an anxiety disorder. An anxiety attack can feel like symptoms of other health problems, so these problems need to be ruled out. For example, chest pain and shortness of breath during an anxiety attack can feel like a heart attack.
  • Repeated anxiety attacks are a real health problem that needs to be treated. You may need to see a counselor. A counselor may help you understand what is causing the anxiety or fear. A counselor may help you learn relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing) to decrease your anxiety. Medicine may also be needed to help your anxiety. It may take many months of treatment to make sure your anxiety attacks do not come back.

What are the risks of having anxiety attacks?

An anxiety attack is not life-threatening. See a caregiver to make sure your symptoms are caused by anxiety and not something more serious. You may develop other problems such as alcohol or drug abuse or depression if your anxiety attacks are not treated. Frequent anxiety attacks can cause many problems with your mood, work, and relationships. People who have an anxiety disorder are more likely to have thoughts of harming themselves. If you or someone you know has thoughts of hurting themselves or others, tell a caregiver right away. Treatment can help decrease the amount and severity of anxiety attacks.

For support and more information:

  • Anxiety attacks can be a life-changing condition for you and your family. Accepting that you have anxiety attacks is hard. You and those close to you may feel angry, sad, or frightened. These feelings are normal. Talk to your caregivers, family, or friends about your feelings. Let them help you. Encourage those close to you to talk to your caregiver about how things are at home. Your caregiver can help your family better understand how to support a person with anxiety attacks.
  • You may want to join a support group. This is a group of people who also have anxiety problems. Ask your caregiver for the names and numbers of support groups in your town. You can also contact one of the following national organizations for more information.
    • Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)
      8730 Georgia Avenue, Suite 600
      Silver Spring, MD 20910
      Phone: 1-240-485-1001
      Web Address:
    • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Public Information & Communication Branch
      6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 8184, MSC 9663
      Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
      Phone: 1-301-443-4513
      Phone: 1-866-615-6464
      Web Address:

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.