Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, which people may describe as an anxiety attack. Symptoms of an anxiety attack may include faster breathing, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and more.

Anxiety can be a reaction to stress. As well as feelings of fear and worry, it often involves physical symptoms. People can also experience anxiety when there is no identifiable stressor.

This article examines the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. It also covers the causes of an anxiety attack and possible treatment options.

Fast facts about anxiety

  • An anxiety attack usually involves a fear of some specific occurrence or problem that could happen.
  • Symptoms include worry, restlessness, and possibly physical symptoms, such as changes in heart rate.
  • Anxiety is different from a panic attack, but it can occur as part of an anxiety or panic disorder.
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There is no set definition of an anxiety attack in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The definition of an anxiety attack is subjective and people may say they are having an anxiety attack when they are describing a panic attack.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, which people may describe as an anxiety attack. These include:

  • feeling lightheaded and dizzy
  • a churning feeling, or a “knot” in the stomach
  • restlessness
  • faster breathing
  • diarrhea
  • sweating
  • hot flushes
  • nausea
  • pins and needles
  • headaches and backaches
  • a fast or irregular heartbeat

Anxiety may:

  • have a specific trigger, such as an exam, workplace issues, a health issue, or a relationship problem
  • be a sign of an anxiety disorder, if it is persistent
  • have symptoms that are less intense than a panic attack
  • usually develop gradually when a person feels anxious

Panic attacks are a symptom and can occur in a variety of anxiety disorders. For example, those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may experience high levels of worry until they have a panic attack.

A panic attack:

  • has symptoms that may feel severe or intense
  • can happen unexpectedly, whether a person feels calm or anxious
  • involves physical symptoms and feelings of terror so intense that the person fears a total loss of control or imminent death
  • often occurs suddenly and usually peaks within 10 minutes before subsiding, although the negative impact may continue

Frequent panic attacks can be a symptom of panic disorder.

Learn more about panic disorder and the symptoms of a panic attack.

Difference in symptoms

Both panic and anxiety may involve:

  • fear
  • a pounding or racing heart
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • numbness or tingling
  • sweating
  • chest pain
  • irrational thoughts

In a panic attack, these are far more intense sensations. The person may genuinely believe they are going to die.

Symptoms of a panic attack can feel similar to severe conditions, such as heart disease, which may make people seek out medical help.

Differences in how they start

Anxiety can be a response to a specific worry, fear, or stress. It tends to develop gradually, and a person is usually worried or concerned at the outset. It can be mild, moderate or severe.

A panic attack can happen without warning and can give people a feeling of being out of control. A panic attack may occur whether a person feels calm or anxious, and even during sleep. There may be no obvious cause, and the level of fear is out of proportion to the trigger.

Differences in duration

Anxiety may relate to a specific situation. It tends to build up and continue for some time.

A panic attack starts suddenly, lasting between 5–20 minutes, and peaking at 10 minutes. It will then begin to subside, although the effects may last longer.

Anxiety generally does not peak in this way, but some people with anxiety can progress to panic attacks.

Can anxiety lead to panic?

A panic attack can be a symptom of anxiety.

A person who has panic disorder may experience anxiety that they are going to have a panic attack. The uncertainty about if, or when, an attack is going to happen may lead to worry or anxiety between attacks. People may take steps to avoid situations they feel will trigger a panic attack.

For a person with panic disorder, anxiety may trigger a panic attack. The fear of having a panic attack can affect a person’s behavior and ability to function in daily life.

Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests there may be a genetic factor underlying panic disorder, as it usually runs in families.

Types of anxiety disorder

There are several different classified anxiety disorders. Each disorder has different symptoms that certain situations may trigger.

Anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic disorder (PD): This involves frequent panic attacks accompanied by the constant fear of future attacks. People with panic disorder may lose a job, refuse to travel or leave their home, or completely avoid anything they believe will trigger an attack.
  • GAD: This is a constant state of worry or persistent feeling of dread, which may last months or years.
  • Social anxiety disorder: People will have an intense and persistent fear that others are watching and judging them.
  • Phobic disorder: This features intense anxiety and irrational fear of an object or situation, for example, a fear of spiders or open spaces. People with phobic disorder may be aware that their fear is irrational.

As well as the physical symptoms of anxiety, people may experience the following:

  • feeling tense or nervous
  • being unable to relax
  • a sense of dread
  • fearing the worst
  • seeking lots of reassurance from others
  • low mood or depression
  • rumination, which is when a person thinks about a situation or thought repeatedly
  • worry about what will happen in the future
  • worrying about anxiety, such as when a panic attack might occur

Not every case of anxiety will include all these symptoms. Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the trigger and how the person reacts to it.

Faced with an examination, for example, some people might feel mildly apprehensive, while others may experience all the above symptoms. Usually, when the hazard or perceived danger passes, symptoms go away.

Anxiety that continues for a long time or has a specific trigger may be a sign of an anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety disorder.

Anxiety often results from stress or feeling overwhelmed.

Causes of anxiety may include:

  • work or school pressure
  • financial pressure
  • family or relationships problems
  • divorce, separation, or bereavement
  • concerns about parenthood or being a caregiver
  • worry about the environment or climate change
  • changing life situations, such as moving house or changing jobs
  • reduced mobility or physical function
  • loss of mental function, for example, short-term memory
  • having a diagnosis of a chronic health condition

It may also link to another factor or health condition, such as:

  • a phobia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • genetic factors
  • major stress or susceptibility to stress
  • a history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • excessive caffeine use
  • the use of some medications
  • a recent or past traumatic experience

Triggers of anxiety could include:

  • public speaking
  • exposure to a phobia trigger
  • a fear of having a panic attack

Anxiety may not always be rational. For example, a person may be anxious about losing their job without any evidence that this is going to happen.

The response that leads to stress and anxiety helps the body cope with difficult situations that arise temporarily.

Adrenaline is the hormone involved in the fight-or-flight response. A sudden release of this hormone prepares the body to flee from danger or to confront the danger physically.

Under usual conditions, adrenaline levels quickly revert to normal once the fear trigger goes away. However, if anxiety continues and adrenaline levels remain high, further problems can arise.

Persistent stress and anxiety can lead to other problems, such as an anxiety disorder or depression.

Ongoing stress may also link to problems with the immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems.

Physical health problems that may arise from anxiety include:

It is important to take action or seek help to reduce stress and anxiety if it becomes overwhelming or persistent.

Treatment options for anxiety and related problems include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • medications, such as some types of antidepressants
  • support groups for people with specific conditions

Anyone who feels overwhelmed by stress or anxiety can see a health professional for advice. Getting help early may help prevent other problems from arising.

If a person is considering seeking professional help, it is important to see a properly trained and qualified person. This website offers a toolkit for finding a local registered psychologist.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Learn more about the mental health resources that are available.

Lifestyle tips

Tips for managing stress and anxiety include:

  • Knowing the signs: If people know how to recognize the signs of stress or anxiety, they may be able to take some action. Headaches, an inability to sleep, or overeating may all be signs that it is time to take a break or ask for help.
  • Knowing personal triggers: If people can learn to recognize what makes them feel anxious, they may be able to take action. Consider keeping a journal to track triggers.
  • Eating a healthy diet: A busy lifestyle may result in unhealthy eating habits. Try to make time to sit down to a healthy meal, or make a homemade lunch with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Exercising: Regular physical activity can help to support mental health and boost a sense of well-being.
  • Learning some relaxation techniques: Breathing, meditation, aromatherapy and other strategies may help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Trying a new activity: Music, gardening, choir, yoga, Pilates, or another group may ease stress and take the mind off any worries for a while. People may meet others with similar concerns and experiences.
  • Being social: Spend time with friends and family, or find a group to meet others, such as volunteering or joining a support group. People may find others who can provide emotional and practical support.
  • Setting goals: If people are feeling overwhelmed with financial or administrative problems, it may help to take time to make a plan. Set targets and priorities and check them off once done. A plan may also help people say “no” to additional requests from others that make them feel anxious.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, fear, or nervousness about a certain situation or event, and can be a response to stress. People may feel restless, nauseous, or have a churning feeling in the stomach. An anxiety attack may feel like a sudden feeling of fear without any threat.

Panic attacks are a more intense feeling of dread, fear, or discomfort. People may feel a loss of control or that their life is in danger. Panic attacks can also feel like a sudden feeling of fear when no threat is present.

Frequent panic attacks may be a sign of panic disorder.

If anxiety is interfering with everyday life, or if people have symptoms of panic disorder, they can see a healthcare professional to discuss coping methods or treatment options.

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