Anxiety is an emotion that is not limited to certain people. Caused by situations that make you feel overwhelmed or stressed, anxiety can show mild, moderate, or severe symptoms. Often these situations are related to work pressures, financial problems, family or relationship issues, parenting concerns, difficulties coping, and other changes that are hard to grasp and deal with.
But how do you know if you’re having an anxiety attack? Though the symptoms of anxiety attacks and panic attacks are similar, anxiety attacks will be less severe and are often triggered by stress or being overwhelmed. Here are 18 signs that you may be having an anxiety attack:
- Overwhelming Fear
- Sweating Profusely
- Difficulty Breathing
- Restricted Throat/Choking Sensation
- Muscle Tension
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Chest Pains
- Irrational Thoughts
- Change in Emotions
- Feeling Rushed or Pressured
- Feeling Faint
- Gastrointestinal (GI) Discomforts
When you are having an anxiety attack, you may not experience all of the signs above. Some symptoms may also be more, or less, severe than others.
Note: Always consult a doctor if you have consistent anxiety attacks and it is affecting your daily life.
Table of Contents
An Overwhelming Fear
Fear is often triggered by something that you are scared of and comes in combination with heart palpitations, irrational thoughts, and other symptoms of anxiety. The feeling of fear may lead to an anxiety attack when it is moderate or severe, depending on the person and the situation.
What does it look like? When you are experiencing an overwhelming fear, you may feel like you are in danger, which will then cause you to be afraid.
When can it happen? Fear can show up at any time. Most often, it can appear if you have a phobia, sudden change in a situation (ex. Car crash), thought that you might lose something important to you, feel trapped, etc.
Heart palpitations can show up before, during, and after an anxiety attack. They may appear alone or in a combination of the other symptoms. Oftentimes, heart palpitations can affect muscles, breathing, and even lead to dizziness.
What does it look like? When you start having heart palpitations, there will be a noticeable increase in your heartbeat. Your heartbeat may become stronger, irregular, and rapid after a certain amount of time. Heart palpitations may feel as if your heart has skipped a beat or like your heart is pounding in your chest (and sometimes neck), a fluttering sense, or a throbbing in the chest.
When can it happen? Heart palpitations can happen at various times and are not always a cause for concern. In some cases, they can come after drinking caffeine or alcohol, exercising, or if you have a feeling of dread, sadness, anger, or fear.
Insomnia may have many causes but is characterized by the inability to fall asleep. It can be an aftereffect of anxiety and a sign that you’re still experiencing the symptoms of the anxiety attack.
What does it look like? The main characteristic of insomnia is being unable to fall asleep. Insomnia may last for a few hours up to a few days. If you’re experiencing consistent insomnia, it is always best to consult your doctor for solutions to help you sleep.
When can it happen? Insomnia can be the result of worry and concerns about work, school, family, or other issues that you can’t seem to get off your mind. When experiencing insomnia, your mind will stay active through the night and during times when you are trying to rest.
While sweating is not always due to stress, there are times when you can sweat more than normal. Sweating usually comes in combination with the other symptoms of anxiety and will be in an excessive amount.
What does it look like? If you’re experiencing fear or extreme nerves, you may start to sweat on your palms, feet, face, and sometimes your entire body. Profuse sweating may include feeling clammy and uncomfortable.
When can it happen? Depending on the situation, sweating can be the result of hot or humid weather, physical exertion, or stress and anxiety.
Shaking and trembling are usually the results of other anxiety symptoms, including, but not limited to, overwhelming fear, irrational thoughts, or hyperventilation. While it may not always be visible, shaking can become more extreme, depending on the cause.
What does it look like? When it is visible, shaking and trembling may look like your body is twitching in a rhythmic pattern.
When can it happen? Your body may be preparing for anxiety and dealing with it by starting to tremble. Shaking and trembling is often accompanied by a feeling of anxiousness and the sense of needing to escape from the cause of your stress.
Difficulty breathing can come suddenly or happen over time. In the cases that it comes suddenly, it may feel more extreme. When it happens over time, symptoms may start milder.
What does it look like? When you are having trouble breathing, it may feel as though your chest is tight, and you’re unable to fill your lungs with oxygen. Breathing may be short, rapid, and panicked.
When can it happen? While it is usually in combination with other symptoms of anxiety, difficulty breathing may sometimes appear on its own, or as one of the first signs that you are about to have an anxiety attack depending on the person and circumstance.
Restricted Throat/Choking Sensation
While a choking sensation may be very similar to difficulty breathing, there are some slight differences. Difficulty breathing can usually be felt in the chest while the choking sensation will start in the throat.
What does it look like? The choking sensation is different from actual choking but will mimic the symptoms. It will feel as though you have something lodged in your throat that will not come out and as if your throat is constricting.
When can it happen? A choking sensation and restricted throat will most often happen when there is a sense of fear or danger. Symptoms may start mild and can progressively become more severe.
Dizziness can range from a mild feeling to a point where you are unable to stand and must sit down. When feeling dizzy, always be sure to stay away from dangerous activities while the dizziness passes.
What does it look like? When you are feeling dizzy, it will seem as though the world around you is spinning. Dizziness can also make you feel lightheaded and unable to concentrate.
When can it happen? When anxiety is causing you to feel overwhelmed, dizziness can come as a result. There also may be times that dizziness may show up as a result of difficult breathing.
As a response to stressors, your body may take on nausea as one of the signs of an anxiety attack. Nausea may range from a mild stomachache to dry heaving or vomiting, depending on the situation.
What does it look like? Nausea can range from a feeling of knots in your stomach all the way to actually needing to vomit. While not all the time, it can also happen due to a combination in palpitations, dizziness, or increased breathing.
When can it happen? As a physical response to having an anxiety attack, you may become sick to your stomach. Nausea that is caused by anxiety usually doesn’t appear alone and will be in combination with other signs.
Muscle tension can happen anywhere on the body but is most common and tends to be more noticeable in the neck and shoulder region.
What does it look like? When experiencing muscle tension, you will feel a tightness in your muscles, almost as though you were flexing or holding weights. The tense muscles will feel fatigued and sore after an extended period of being tense.
When can it happen? A common sign will be when you make and hold your hands into fists, a clenched jaw, or after not moving for a period of time.
If you have ever had difficulty paying attention to a conversation or completing a task, then you understand the difficulty concentrating. In a lighter view, it resembles a dog in a favorite children’s movie, he tries to talk but gets distracted by a squirrel. Difficulty concentrating can be brought on by other symptoms and range from mild to severe.
What does it look like? Difficult concentrating will be shown when you are unable to complete a task (either at home or work), or you have a hard time understanding a conversation. You will need to revisit a conversation or task multiple times before you’re able to complete it.
When can it happen? If you are struggling to concentrate, it can happen either whenever you’re trying to complete an assignment or duty.
Depending on how severe the anxiety attack is, chest pains may accompany the other signs. Chest pains are a result of worry and anxiety, showing physical symptoms.
What does it look like? When experiencing chest pains, they may take on several different forms. While ranging from mild to severe, chest pains can show up as a sharp stab, dull ache, crushing, or a burning sensation in your chest.
When can it happen? Chest pains can either happen alone or in combination with the other signs during an anxiety attack. Depending on the person, they may start as a mild pain that can turn into a severe chest pain.
At times, irrational thoughts may show up as an extreme fear of the unknown or immense worry over an unlikely scenario (ex. Fear of a small bug becoming a larger bug). When worried, irrational thoughts may take over and turn into an anxiety attack.
What does it look like? Irrational thoughts tend to vary depending on the circumstance and person. They can show an inability to control a situation to more extreme thoughts, including “I must succeed in everything I do or I won’t be good enough.”
When can it happen? If you’re experiencing an overwhelming amount of worry or stress, you may start to have irrational thoughts of your situation going from bad to unbearable.
Change in Emotions
Though we may experience a variety of emotions regularly, anxiety attacks can cause your emotions to become more unstable or show extreme ups and downs.
What does it look like? While changing emotions can be caused by different factors, emotions that are caused by anxiety are commonly more severe cases of sadness, depression, and anger.
When can it happen? After an extended time dealing with anxiety, emotions can start to become more severely affected. A change in emotions is typically associated with irrational thoughts and overwhelming fear or worry.
Feeling Rushed or Pressured
While feeling rushed or pressured, you may have a sense of needing to get to your location faster or as though you have a limited time to complete certain tasks. Symptoms can range from being mild to extreme.
What does it look like? Feeling rushed or pressured can either show up as irritation, anger, or even a feeling as though you are out of time to complete a task. When feeling rushed, it may be followed by an all or nothing thought.
When can it happen? When feeling rushed or pressured, it is common that an irrational timeframe is the cause. In other situations, it may be due to being distracted and having a difficult time concentrating.
Headaches can start as mild but may become more severe and turn into a migraine. As one of the most common symptoms of anxiety, headaches can last for a few hours up to a few days.
What does it look like? When noticing that you have a headache, it can either be an all-around stabbing sensation or take form in a specific location on your head. Headaches caused by anxiety will usually appear across the forehead or above the back of the neck as pressure or a dull pain.
When does it happen? Headaches can happen if you have had a lack of water, food, or have experienced other symptoms, such as muscle tension.
Feeling faint is usually due to a combination of the other anxiety symptoms and may be a result of difficult breathing and dizziness.
What does it look like? Feeling faint can sometimes be misinterpreted as dizziness, but when you feel dizzy, it can be related to (or followed by) feeling faint. You will feel as though you’re unable to stay conscious and as though you can’t recall staying awake.
When can it happen? As stated above, feeling faint can accompany feelings of dizziness. Many times, it can be caused by a lack of oxygen (from hyperventilating or a restricted throat).
Gastrointestinal (GI) Discomforts
Any GI discomforts that you’re experiencing may range from mild to severe and can last over a few hours to a few days.
What does it look like? Depending on how serious the discomforts are, GI pains can range from frequent urination, diarrhea, stomach knots, nausea, or more.
When can it happen? After your body releases cortisol or the stress hormone, it will start to produce more stomach acid, which will then lead to varying levels of GI discomfort.
Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks
Anxiety attacks are not always as severe as panic attacks. They will usually be caused by a specific trigger, while panic attacks can happen whether you are overwhelmed or feeling calm.
Also, unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks will happen after an extended period of anxiety- meaning, it will gradually build over time (think of a rain cloud collecting moisture until it builds up enough to actually rain).
The other difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack is the enormous amount of dread when dealing with a panic attack. Though both have very similar symptoms, a panic attack will show as severe symptoms, while anxiety attacks can range from mild to severe (in extreme cases).
How to deal with Anxiety Attacks
EverydayHealth.com shares coping methods to help stop anxiety attacks, which include breathing techniques and other relaxation techniques. Other methods include working out and finding objects to focus on in order to remove your mind from a stressful situation.
Remember: If you believe you are experiencing anxiety attacks consistently and they are disrupting your daily life, consult a doctor. While not all of the symptoms above may be felt, there may be a combination ranging from mild to severe, depending on the situation.
Understanding the signs of an anxiety attack is the first step in knowing what is happening in your body and learning coping skills to help calm down before it gets too overwhelming. Take time to walk yourself through what to do next time you’re feeling one of these symptoms of an anxiety attack.
If you don’t where to start, reach out to a therapist for help. We are here to help you recognize what coping skills will work best for you. I work with my clients to design a plan that works specifically for them. Not all the same things will work for you as they do for someone else.