All of us are prone to some degree of anxiety at one point or another in life.
Though it has a negative connotation, anxiety is a perfectly natural stress response. It indicates that we’ve let too much stress build-up and that we need a break to rest and recharge our mind, body, and spirit.
Though we all experience some degree of anxiety, some of us are prone to more overwhelming, frightening, and confusing experiences.
If you’re one of the almost 20 percent of people in the US reported struggling with anxiety by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, you’ll know that anxiety attacks are no fun.
They can be deeply confusing and frightening and so incredibly overpowering that even one episode can instill a fear of an attack ever happening again.
In this article, we’ll further explore the nature of anxiety attacks. We’ll look at what triggers them, how long can a anxiety attack last, and what the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack.
Later in the article, we’ll offer some evidence-based tips and advice to help you relieve your anxiety or keep yourself grounded when you sense an attack approaching.
What is an anxiety attack?
Anxiety attacks come in two forms. The first is a regular anxiety attack, in which symptoms of a pre-existing anxiety disorder get exacerbated by life circumstances, such as major life changes, excessive stress, or poor coping and self-management.
Anxiety attacks are short, but the attack itself is the tip of the iceberg. They don’t happen suddenly but instead stem from a gradual build-up of stress, worry, and tension that takes place over a few days, weeks, or even months.
You might experience a gradually building anxiety attack if you struggle with any of the five broad categories of anxiety disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition as:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Specific phobia (such as social anxiety or agoraphobia)
What is a panic attack?
The other form of an anxiety attack is a panic attack. Panic attacks are a sudden onset of anxiety symptoms with such intensity that the person suffering might mistakenly believe they’re having a heart attack. They are accompanied by a range of physical and emotional symptoms that can exacerbate the overall experience, including:
- Intense fear
- Shallow or difficult breathing
- Chest tightness
- Racing thoughts
- Rapid heartbeat
- Feeling the world is closing in
Unexpected panic attacks can be so frightening that after even one experience, one may go to great lengths to prevent them from happening again.
In some cases, in what is known as a limited symptom attack (LSA), the attack doesn’t peak but instead rises subtly over the space of a few hours. These attacks are not as intense as a full-blown panic attack but can still be deeply distressing.
How long do anxiety attacks last?
Although it can feel like forever, anxiety and panic attacks don’t last very long. Their length can range from ten to thirty minutes, depending on the circumstances and support systems in place and available for the person suffering.
Though short, the underlying anxiety disorder that leads to an attack is much longer-lasting. Anxiety disorders can last for years when left unchecked, so it’s wise to seek the support and advice of a mental health professional if you suspect that you’re living with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder.
Signs and physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder
According to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you may have an anxiety disorder if you experience some of the following mental and physical symptoms for longer than six months, and they get in the way of your ability to function normally in daily life.
- Excessive worry, irrational fear, and rumination
- Trouble falling and staying asleep, insomnia
- Catastrophic thoughts – believing the worst-case scenario will happen in a given situation
- Frequent headaches, nausea, and cramps
- Obsession and compulsions
- A sense of losing control
- Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Use of substance to mask or escape from difficult feelings
Again, in general, anxiety attacks tend to be short and last at most 30 minutes. Still, the days or weeks leading up to the attack are significant, and it is in this space that you can intervene by applying techniques and tools that prevent the attack from happening.
It’s important to develop an awareness of your anxiety triggers so that you can notice when they’ve been activated. By noticing the gradual build-up of anxiety attacks, you can stop it in its tracks.
Living with anxiety can be extremely challenging, but the more you get to know about the condition and your unique experience of it, the easier it becomes to manage.
Anxiety attack risk factors
Some common risk factors that increase your chances of having an anxiety attack include:
- A build-up of stress due to excessive demands and responsibilities
- Traumatic experiences
- Neglect of personal boundaries
- Neglect of diet and exercise
- Overloading your mind and body with stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine
- Excessive misuse of substances, including alcohol
- Physical illness
- Existential anxiety
If you notice that you’re experiencing some of the above and you’re gradually being more stressed, it’s time to reach out for help.
As mentioned earlier, a single episode of an anxiety or panic attack won’t be too harmful, but the lengths we go to to avoid it can be, and living an unresolved anxiety disorder can deteriorate your mental, emotional and physical health in the long run.
Mental health professionals can advise you on how best to manage and treat your anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re struggling.
Below we’ve outlined how professional help can support you on your recovery journey, as well as tools and techniques you can apply daily to help keep your anxiety under control.
How to overcome anxiety and panic attacks
Even though they only last around 30 minutes, time feels irrelevant in the throes of anxiety attacks. The symptoms are so intense and come on so quickly that even one minute of a panic or anxiety attack is incredibly disconcerting.
When you’re in the heights of an attack, it can be challenging to know what to do. The mind tends to scramble for some fix or solution to make it all stop, but that scrambling can make it hard to organize your thoughts.
Others may try to help, but the inner whirlwind makes it hard to hear them. As such, it’s best to practice relaxation and grounding techniques before you need them so you can call on them when you do.
1. Identify your risk factors
Consistently log times when your anxiety has been triggered, and note the circumstances and environment.
Where were you? Who was around? Was it busy or quiet? What thoughts and feelings did you have before the sensation of anxiety? What changed for you to feel calm again?
Self-awareness and personal insight are key for effective management and ultimate recovery when it comes to any mental health condition. By investigating with curiosity, your anxiety triggers, you’ll come to a better understanding of what causes your anxiety attacks and how to set boundaries to prevent them from happening as often.
2. Practice deep breathing
During an anxiety or panic attack, the breath shortens and quickens. That’s a natural part of the body’s stress response system, and along with other functions like sweating and muscle tension, and hyper-alertness, keeps us safe from danger.
However, in a panic attack, there is added confusion and extreme resistance to the stress response because we know that there isn’t any danger.
When the breath becomes quick and shallow, it’s because the body is in sympathetic nervous system activation. The SNS is the body’s ‘accelerator.’ We can hack the nervous system and cross over into the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) – the brake pedal – by breathing deep into the diaphragm.
Slow, natural, and deep breathing signals to the body that we are safe. Thus it tells the brain and body to disengage the SNS.
3. Practice relaxation techniques
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of several relaxation techniques that help you come down from anxiety attacks.
Others include progressive muscle relaxation – checking in with each part of the body, tensing it in purpose, then consciously letting go of that tension. This is also known as a body scan and can help you regain some control of your body and your sense of ground and safety in the present moment.
Another popular relaxation technique for attacks is the 5-4-3-2-1 method.
This method identifies five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. In the throes of an attack, you may feel less able to smell and taste specific things, so you can substitute present sensory awareness for a memory of smells and tastes you enjoy.
You can also help yourself relax by talking yourself through the experience.
As mentioned, it can be hard to hear the messages and advice from others because an attack makes you feel so deep inside your head. Still, you may be able to reach yourself.
If you can find an ace inside to talk to yourself, do so by addressing that anxiety that is happening, that it will pass, and that it’s not a reflection of who you are.
Try listening to anxiety-coping guides such as podcasts or YouTube videos.
Kimberley Quinlan hosts podcasts and has a podcast available on Spotify and Acast – Your Anxiety Toolkit – in which she explores different tools and techniques for symptom management.
Many mental health professionals, experts, and advocates out there offer effective anxiety relief techniques, ideas, and research. Understanding and remembering as much as you can about these techniques will help you when you need them most.
4. Try accupressure
Acupressure is a form of traditional Chinese medicine, similar to acupuncture, that works with energy points or ‘meridian’ points around the body to relieve stress, release blocked energy, and promote the body’s natural healing abilities.
One such point is known as the Inner Gate. It’s located about three fingers’ width from the top of the inner wrist. Massage this spot for two to three minutes with your thumb to achieve its stress-relieving effects.
5. Nourish your body
Stress is the number one risk factor for anxiety and panic attacks.
Often such stress stems from life events such as worries about work or your relationships, a significant loss, or pushing yourself too hard without adequate rest. Still, life is inherently stressful at times, so it helps to take measures to improve your stress tolerance and emotional resilience,
One method of doing so is to nourish and equip your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly. That includes vitamins, minerals, whole foods, and plenty of water.
A lack of adequate nutrition reduces the body’s ability to handle stress, weakens the immune system, and has a detrimental effect on your mood and sense of well-being.
By giving your body the right nutrients, you equip with the tools it needs to effectively handle stress and reduce your risk of entering an attack.
6. Seek professional support
A once-off anxiety attack is still frightening and confusing even if it may not be a cause for significant concern, especially if you can directly trace it to major stress or life changes.
In many cases, those who misuse substances or have adverse reactions to medication, experience trauma or significant distress, or have a medical condition such as hyperthyroidism may experience panic attacks.
In these cases, attacks do not indicate an underlying panic disorder. However, you can still benefit from speaking to a therapist or medical professional, primarily if an attack stems from substance use.
If your attacks are more frequent and severe, then that’s an indication of an underlying issue, and you can most certainly benefit from speaking to a professional.
If you struggle with undiagnosed anxiety disorder and have never sought treatment, understand that treatment is highly effective. It has helped countless people move on from their anxiety and live full, healthy lives.
Mental health professionals typically recommend a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy, mediation if necessary, and self-help techniques like diet, exercise, creative expression, and quality rest.
When it comes to anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and any other mental health issues, prevention is always the best cure.
We hope the tips and advice we’ve included above will help if you ever have to face an attack again, but remember to take care of yourself when you’re not having an attack to reduce the risk of one coming along unexpectedly.