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How To Recognize An Anxiety Attack: 5 Steps To Treatment

By Dr. Ori Shinar

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It can be very helpful for you to know how to recognize an anxiety attack.

This is especially since anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 40 million adults.

That’s nearly one in five people.

Pretty wild, huh?

Don’t feel ashamed if you’re one of those who deal with anxiety.

You are far from being alone.

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, and sometimes even life-threatening.

They are fortunately highly treatable.

However, many of those suffering from anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions do not receive treatment.

if you are experiencing an anxiety attack, that does not necessarily mean that you have an anxiety disorder.

That is often the case though.

Don’t worry, this article is not about convincing you to get professional help.

That is the last step on the list if the first 4 don’t quite do the trick.

The hope though is that the first 4 will help you enough.

While I always encourage anyone suffering from anxiety symptoms to seek professional help, this article will hopefully be able to provide you with some useful information.

That is regardless of whether or not you meet with an expert.

With that said, let’s get an understanding of what exactly it is that we’re talking about here.

how to recognize an anxiety attack

Defining Anxiety Attacks

While not an official clinical term, “anxiety attack” is a term that we have all heard.

It is convenient term for describing an experience that many people have had but few know how to explain.

But defining the term is the first step in figuring out how to recognize an anxiety attack.

An anxiety attack is a period of intense fear or discomfort similar to a panic attack.

You can generally distinguish them by the length of time for which they last.

You should not get hung up on definitions and terms.

Diagnosis is your mental health professional’s job.

Anxiety attacks can be very frightening and they are more common than most people probably think.

Common estimates are that one in every four adults will experience an anxiety attack at some point in their lives.

Though they can be very frightening, there are some things you can do to recognize when you or someone you know is having an anxiety attack.

how to recognize an anxiety attack

Step One: Identify The Symptoms

Often, people don’t realize that they are experiencing an anxiety attack and instead think that they are having a panic attack or a heart attack

While not life threatening, the experience of having an anxiety attack is deeply unpleasant and often frightening.

It’s helpful to be aware of the symptoms of an anxiety attack so that you can seek treatment.

If that is not possible try to handle it yourself in the best way possible in the event that you experience one. 

Symptoms of an anxiety attack can include (but are not limited to): 

  • Racing heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Shaking 
  • Feeling dizzy, faint, or lightheaded
  • Feeling like you are going to pass out
  • Trembling
  • Intense fear of losing control
  • Feeling of impending doom

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to stay calm and try to breathe slowly and evenly.

Try to relax your muscles by tensing and releasing them one at a time. 

Accept that these feelings are only temporary and that they will eventually pass.

If you’re with someone who is having an anxiety attack, help them to find a safe place to sit or lie down, and offer them reassurance that you are there with them and that they are not in danger.

anxiety breath

Step Two: Determine The Cause

Anxiety attacks can be very frightening and surprising, but they do not tend to happen randomly or without advance warning and they certainly do not occur without some kind of cause.

The list of possible causes is long but here are some of the most common ones to look for when thinking about how to recognize an anxiety attack.

Underlying Mental Health Condition

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, anxiety attacks are often a symptom of an underlying mental health condition.

These can include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, or social anxiety disorder among others. 

This is not an invitation to self-diagnose, but it is helpful to have at least some general idea of what might be going on beneath the surface in order to know what to do for step 3 on this list.

Depending on your own ability to introspect, you may or may not be able to get close to the root of the problem by yourself.

In that case, a mental health professional can help you get the rest of the way to an official diagnosis if there is one to be made.

Underlying Physical Health Condition

Anxiety attacks can also be triggered (though typically not caused) by physical health conditions, such as heart disease, thyroid problems, or chronic respiratory disorders. 

None of these physical conditions are necessarily the underlying cause of an anxiety attack

However, as an anxiety attack is a mental health phenomenon, they can add to the problem and make it more serious.

For someone with an anxiety disorder, they can also be a point of fixation where they enter a negative psychological spiral.

Adverse Reaction to Medication

Anxiety attacks can also sometimes be caused by adverse reactions to certain medications, such as beta-blockers or antidepressants. 

Everyone reacts differently to medication.

That is one reason why you require a prescription from a health professional to obtain most kinds of pharmaceutical medication.

It is also why it is necessary for pharmaceutical corporations to conduct extensive clinical trials over periods of years before releasing said medications to the public.

It would be unethical for a health professional to prescribe or recommend them otherwise.

Unknown Cause

In some cases, the exact cause of an anxiety attack is unknown.

This could remain the case depending on how deep the individual’s psychological rabbit hole goes and how much digging is required to find the root.

It could be something as seemingly simple as an undiagnosed fear of germs or as complex and sensitive as complex PTSD from extreme trauma suffered in early childhood.

how to recognize an anxiety attack

Step Three: Make Lifestyle Changes

Once you have some idea of how to recognize an anxiety attack and what the cause is or at least might be, it is time to start determining what changes you need to make to your lifestyle and environment.

You can do a lot of work on the inside and that is always a great thing to do.

However, any person who has ever kicked a substance addiction will likely tell you that one of the most important factors in whether or not they relapse is whether or not the substance is nearby and available.

Anyone who has successfully stayed out after being released from prison will also likely tell you that you need to avoid the people and environment that got you into prison.

Environment and lifestyle changes can be very effective in treating anxiety just as they can with treating addiction and decreasing recidivism. 

Here are some examples:


Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and promote relaxation because it tends to take your mind off of other things while also causing the brain to release endorphins. 

Yoga and meditation are also excellent choices for reducing anxiety if you can’t engage in more intense physical activity.

Do as much of your exercise as you can outside.

The simple act of being out in the sun is known to have positive effects on mental health.

Not going outside and not getting sunlight is also known to be connected to negative mental health consequences.

Eat Healthy And Drink Water

Diet plays a big role in anxiety and mental health in general

Eating healthy foods and avoiding caffeine and alcohol can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety. 

Eating healthy and staying hydrated can also simultaneously boost the feel-good hormones in your body.

Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep is also important in treating anxiety.

Unfortunately, being as stressed out and dependent on screens and technology as so many of us are, sleep deprivation is actually fairly common.

In fact, you may well be suffering from it without even knowing.

If you snore loudly or find yourself still feeling tired throughout the day no matter how many hours of sleep you get, you may want to ask your doctor about sleep apnea.

You probably don’t have it but, if you do, proper treatment for it might make all the difference for you.

future self

Step Four: Manage Triggers

Lifestyle and environmental changes are strongly connected to anxiety attacks.

In that section, I drew a comparison between the negative spiraling characteristic of anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks.

Here, the concept is very similar.

Within your environment and daily habit patterns, there are multitudes of behavioral triggers that you may not be aware of. 

Just think of your phone for one example.

Most of the apps that you use most frequently probably send you notifications, cause your phone to vibrate, and do a number of other things intentionally designed to get your attention.

Do you usually feel better or worse after losing an hour to scrolling or replying to comments?

In the same way that it might be helpful to you to disable notifications and switch your phone to grayscale, it may also be helpful to identify what within your environment and habit patterns triggers certain behaviors (both positive and negative).

The best thing you can do to overcome drug addiction is to completely remove drugs from your environment so that you have a chance to form new, better habits.

Likewise, one of the best things you can do for anxiety is figure out what things spark your negative behaviors so that you can try to reduce your exposure.

how to recognize an anxiety attack

Step Five: Seeking Professional Help

Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. 

However, when anxiety becomes severe, it can interfere with daily life and cause anxiety attacks and other problems.

Some people experience only one or two anxiety attacks in their lifetime.

Others may have recurrent attacks.

Still many others may not know because they do not know how to recognize an anxiety attack.

If you are in the group which has recurrent attacks, you may benefit from seeking professional help.

An anxiety attack is not a sign of weakness.

how to recognize an anxiety attack

Take Action Against Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks can be very frightening and overwhelming.

But, once you understand how to recognize an anxiety attack, you will be more prepared to handle them.

If you are experiencing one, try to remember that it is only temporary, it will pass, and you will be okay.

Keep a printed list of cognitive distortions with you so you can read them to help yourself through anxiety attacks.

Observe your thoughts and try to identify where you might be succumbing to one or more of these cognitive distortions.

Don’t be hard on yourself when you do this because we all succumb to distorted thinking from time to time.

An anxiety attack is not a sign of weakness and it does not mean that you are crazy. 

If addressed in the proper way and with treatment if necessary, most people are able to manage their anxiety and live normal, productive lives.

Schedule an appointment with dr ori

Are you ready to start living fully?

To learn more about individual therapy schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation and we’ll help determine if our services are a good fit for you.

Schedule an appointment with dr ori

Are you ready to start living fully?

To learn more about individual therapy schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation and we’ll help determine if our services are a good fit for you.

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