Anxiety attack: Symptoms, causes, and complications

While anxiety is a normal, healthy and in many cases useful “fight or flight” human reaction, extreme or disproportional anxiety can cause serious problems for the person affected.

When anxiety gets out of control, and the worrying thoughts, the panic and the fear gains control over the everyday activities, the relationships, the work and school of a person, this is probably due to an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders can include suffering from anxiety attacks as well as panic attacks, as well as other physical and mental symptoms that can affect one’s life.

There are different types of anxiety disorders, including – panic disorder, general anxiety disorder, specific phobias, agoraphobia, separation anxiety phobia, selective mutism, as well as disorders caused by alcohol, medication, or drug abuse or withdrawal, trauma, stress, or an underlying medical condition.

Read on more to find out everything you need to know about anxiety attacks, what the symptoms are, what causes them, what the possible complications are, and what the treatments are.

Fast facts about anxiety attacks

Anxiety attacks are usually triggered by a specific object, event, or setting.

The anxiety attack typically exhibits itself with fear and worrying about an upcoming event or about something that may occur.

There are some physical symptoms of anxiety attacks, including heart rate changes, increased blood pressure, muscle tenseness, apart from irrational or disproportionate restlessness, and worrying.

Although anxiety attacks are not as severe as full-blown panic attacks, they are still unpleasant, bothersome, and can cause a drastic disruption to the life of the person affected.

An anxiety attack can occur to somebody suffering from panic disorder, who fears an onset of a next panic attack.

Anxiety attack vs. panic attack

Many people mistakenly think that an anxiety attack and a panic attack are the same things.

The fact is, they do have some common symptoms, including fear, a racing or pounding heart, breathing problems, lightheadedness, and irrational thoughts.

But, the symptoms of a panic attack are typically much more severe than those during an anxiety attack. People having a panic attack often have a genuine belief that they are actually dying from a heart attack or feel impending doom.

This is why people who suffer from panic attacks will land up in the emergency room much more often than those experiencing anxiety attacks.

Here are the differences between anxiety and panic attacks:

Anxiety and anxiety attacks are:

  • Less severe than panic attacks
  • Usually caused by a specific trigger (an exam, speech, job interview, a specific object or setting, or other)
  • They develop gradually
  • May include physical symptoms like feeling “a knot in the stomach” or racing or pounding heart

Panic and panic attacks:

  • Can occur at any time, anywhere, without a specific trigger
  • Can happen when a person is anxious but also suddenly when a person is calm, or even sleeping as well
  • The symptoms – both physical and emotional can be so severe that a person may seek emergency care
  • The person experiences genuine terror and fear of imminent death and total loss of control
  • If the panic attack is due to panic disorder, it can be officially diagnosed as a medical condition
  • For people with panic disorder, anxiety can trigger a new panic attack
  • Fear of having another panic attack can lead to anxiety, also known as “fear of fear”

General symptoms of anxiety and signs that you may have an anxiety disorder

Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe, and the symptoms may vary from person to person and from one anxiety disorder to another.

People suffering from anxiety can experience both physical and non-physical symptoms.

When the anxiety is ongoing and starts interfering with one’s normal life, it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

Here are some of the common symptoms which people who suffer from one or more forms of anxiety disorder can experience:

  • Constant worrying and a feeling “on edge”
  • The anxiety interferes with everyday life, work, and family responsibilities
  • Irrational fears which cannot be shaken off
  • A belief that something terrible will occur
  • Avoidance of certain triggers that cause the anxiety symptoms
  • Sudden onsets of changes in the heart rate, like heart racing and pounding
  • A feeling of danger, and of being trapped and unable to get help
  • Troubles concentrating
  • Tenseness and jumpiness
  • Increased irritability
  • Brain fog
  • Problems going to sleep and sleeping
  • A need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • Tremor and trembling
  • Headaches, chronic pains
  • Sweating
  • Digestive problems

Causes of anxiety and anxiety attacks

In some cases, you may be suffering from anxiety attacks, or from ongoing anxiety due to an underlying health condition. It is important that you see a doctor who can examine you and determine whether such is the case. Often times, when the primary medical condition is treated, the anxiety too will go away.

Here are some of the common health problems which can cause anxiety attacks, anxiety or anxiety disorders:

  • An overactive or underactive thyroid gland
  • Arrhythmia or other heart problems
  • Respiratory diseases such as asthma, COPD or others
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Tumors causing hormonal imbalance the overproduction of adrenaline
  • Changes in the chemistry of the brain
  • Withdrawal from alcohol, medications or drugs
  • A diagnosis for a serious medical condition

Apart from medical reasons, there are some other factors which can cause the development of anxiety disorders, or frequent anxiety attacks, including:

  • Genes – it is believed that anxiety is hereditary
  • Trauma or a life-threatening event
  • Stress at work or in the family or relationship
  • An abrupt major change in your life
  • Losing a loved one, divorce or separation
  • Having a baby and worrying about being a good parent
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • The use of some medications
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Reduced mobility or loss of mental function
  • Excessive caffeine intake

A specific anxiety attack may be triggered by a specific event, including:

  • Exposure to a trigger of your phobia
  • A fear of having a panic attack
  • Stage fright
  • Fear of embarrassing yourself

Possible complications from anxiety attacks

Anxiety is meant to help people cope with difficult temporary situations. Adrenaline is a hormone that triggers the fight or flight response which is a survival mechanism for dealing with danger or fleeing from it.

Under normal circumstances, the adrenaline levels return to normal once the danger is averted or confronted, and when the trigger is removed.

But in the cases, when the adrenaline levels remain high even without a trigger, or when the anxiety symptoms occur without a plausible reason or trigger, the person affected may face further, serious problems.

Some of the complications of persistent anxiety and stress include:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Sleep, immune, digestive, reproductive and other health problems like high blood pressure, insomnia, diabetes, heart disease, and frequent infections and colds

It is vital to seek medical attention and help to pinpoint the reason for ongoing or overwhelming anxiety in order to help prevent the onset of more severe physical and mental problems.

Types of anxiety disorders which can cause anxiety attacks

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

This is a chronic anxiety disorder that causes ongoing anxiety, worrying and fear without any specific trigger.

People suffering from GAD often experience so much overblown anxiety that it can interfere with their work, relationships, and social lives.

Generalized anxiety disorder can cause not only consistent anxiety but also specific physical symptoms as well.

Here are the most common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder:

  • Uncontrollable anxiety and worrying
  • Restlessness and feeling “on edge”
  • Problems with concentration
  • Increased irritability and explosive anger
  • Unexplained nervousness
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Non-realistic problem perception
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Personality changes, including becoming isolated or less social
  • Sweating
  • Frequent need for using the bathroom

Panic attacks and panic disorder

Panic disorder causes frequent and reoccurring panic attacks and often causes increased anxiety and fear of suffering another panic attack.

People who have a panic disorder may have anxiety attacks or suffer from increased anxiety due to their “fear of fear,” or in other words, of having another terrifying episode that they dread can occur at any time, anywhere and without an obvious trigger.

Phobias and irrational fears

A phobia causes a person to feel an irrational fear and anxiety from a specific situation, animal, object, or other.

In severe cases, the affected person may try to avoid coming into contact with the trigger at all costs. In some cases, this can cause isolation, and serious disruptions of everyday activities, social life, relationships, school work and others.

Interestingly enough, many people with phobias realize that their fears are irrational, but still are unable to control them.

A person who has a specific phobia will:

  • Take all kinds of actions and steps to avoid the trigger at all costs
  • Worry excessively about coming into contact with the feared trigger
  • Experience severe anxiety when in contact with the trigger

Agoraphobia

This is a fear of being trapped somewhere where you cannot escape or get help if something happens.

Agoraphobia can be a fear of riding a bus, getting on an elevator, being in a crowded space, leaving home alone, and others.

As with the other phobias and irrational fears, the people affected will often do everything possible to avoid the settings which trigger them.

In extreme cases, people with agoraphobia can become housebound and refuse to leave their homes.

When left untreated, panic disorders can also induce the onset of agoraphobia as well.

Social anxiety disorder

This disorder causes an irrational and debilitating fear of being viewed negatively, judged by, or embarrassed by other people. Social phobia can cause a fear of relationships, intimacy, humiliation, rejection or others.

Like with other phobias, people suffering from a social phobia may start avoiding any situations involving other people, and this can seriously affect their work, relationships and overall lives.

Performance anxiety, known as stage fright, is one of the most common types of social phobia.

Separation anxiety disorder

Separation anxiety is something which just about any child passes through, but when it becomes persistent and continues enough to stop a child from going to school or anywhere without one or both parents, then it can turn into a separation anxiety disorder.

It is essential to seek treatment for the child as early as possible if it is showing symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, or of any other type of anxiety which can turn into a disorder later on in life.

But separation anxiety disorder does not affect only children. Some adults develop separation anxiety, as well. This can lead to suffering anxiety attacks, and physical symptoms when separated from the attachment figure, as well as irrational fears about something terrible happening when the person is away.

Selective mutism

This is a rarer type of anxiety disorder that causes an inability of children who can otherwise speak freely with close ones to speak in certain places and situations. This type of disorder usually appears around the age of 5 and is often due to overwhelming shyness, a fear of being embarrassed in public, temper tantrums, a clinging behavior and others.

It is a condition that needs to be addressed by a doctor or medical expert in a timely manner, in order to prevent further complications as the child grows.

When is it time to seek professional help for anxiety symptoms?

Although in some mild cases of anxiety and anxiety attacks, self-help strategies can be very useful, in more severe cases, a person suffering from anxiety or anxiety attacks which are disrupting his or her normal daily life, should seek professional help.

If you are experiencing constant worrying, fear, nervousness, or phobias which are getting in the way with your relationships, your work, your social life, your finances, and your everyday life, then it is time to see a doctor.

A doctor will help determine whether your anxiety isn’t caused by an underlying medical condition that needs to be addressed. There are some health problems that can cause anxiety attacks and anxiety. Some of them include thyroid problems, asthma, COPD, heart disease, chronic pain, IBS, substance withdrawal, tumors causing an overproduction of hormones, and others.

Make sure you let your doctor know what types of prescription and OTC medications you are taking, as well as any herbal or dietary supplements, vitamins, and recreational drugs.

If a medical cause is ruled out, you will probably be referred to a therapist with experience in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

In any case, you shouldn’t be worried, because more than 40 million people in the USA only suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, so you are not alone.

Plus, anxiety disorders are treatable, with the appropriate therapy, lifestyle changes, and in some cases, medication and self-help methods.

Treatment for anxiety disorders

The good news is that anxiety disorders in most cases are treatable, and respond very well to therapy so that you can get well relatively quickly and easily.

The specific treatment of an anxiety disorder depends on the type of disorder, its severity, as well as on the particular case.

In most cases, the treatment includes cognitive behavior therapy or exposure therapy, and in some cases, it can be combined with medications too.

Cognitive exposure therapy will help identify the trigger for the anxiety and challenge the irrational fear and worries, as well as the negative thinking, which causes the anxiety.

Exposure therapy encourages patients to face their fears gradually and in a controlled and safe environment, in order to eliminate the irrational fear of a non-existing danger.

In addition, the treatment of many types of social anxiety disorders can also benefit from joining support groups, as well as making certain lifestyle changes, performing some types of exercises and practicing self-help techniques.

In order to receive proper treatment, always seek professional help by a qualified and trained doctor and psychotherapist.

It is essential to understand, that although there are various highly efficient medications for suppressing the symptoms of anxiety, such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, beta-blockers and others, the medication will only help control or alleviate the symptoms, but will not cure the anxiety disorder. This is why therapy is an essential part of the treatment of anxiety attacks caused by anxiety disorders.

Also, in some cases, you will need to make certain lifestyle changes in order to get rid of the incapacitating anxiety.

Self-help for managing anxiety

Here are some tips for helping control anxiety and anxiety attacks which you can use alongside your treatment:

  • Take the time to relax
  • Practice stress management to help manage the triggers causing the stress
  • Learn to recognize the signs of anxiety and take actions to stop the onset of an anxiety attack
  • Identify the triggers of your anxiety – if alcohol or coffee causes your anxiety, then cut down or quit
  • Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet
  • Engage in at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise or physical activity every day
  • Learn and practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and others
  • Learn and practice controlling your breathing to help resolve hyperventilation
  • Find a new hobby or activity to take your mind off the worries, and to keep yourself engaged
  • Stay social and meet your friends, relatives or join a support group
  • Create a support network of people who you can rely on when you are overwhelmed by anxiety
  • Get enough sleep and follow a sleep schedule
  • Use an essential oil diffuser for some home aromatherapy relaxation with lavender oil
  • Set up a specific “worry time” when you can focus on your worries for a limited amount of time
  • Stop worrying about “what if” and try to turn them into “so what” instead
  • Try replacing negative with positive thoughts by writing the negative ones down and choosing positive replacements instead

Final words

Anxiety attacks are normal when facing problems and challenges like stress, a test, an interview, a speech, a public performance, and others.

But when you are constantly feeling worried, anxious, and tense, this can cause serious disruptions to your life and wellbeing.

Anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders can be caused by numerous factors, but with professional help, they can be treated.

In any case, you shouldn’t just settle and live with your anxiety and be one of the 60% of the people who have not sought treatment for their anxiety disorders.

Instead, get an appointment to see your doctor, to make sure that the causes of your anxiety are not caused by underlying medical conditions.

Once these are ruled out or addressed, your doctor will prescribe you the best treatment, which usually includes psychotherapy, and in some cases – medication.

With some additional lifestyle changes, and by following some simple tips for controlling your anxiety, you can get better, get rid of the constant fear and worry, and get back to living a normal life once again.

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