The symptoms of an anxiety attack - also called a panic attack - come on suddenly and feel very alarming and frightening. In panic disorder, unexpected panic attacks happen out of the blue, in the absence of any apparent trigger.
For one thing, the thoughts that cross your mind during a panic or anxiety attack can feel unreal, illogical, and out of character. And the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety - like a pounding pulse, chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, or dizziness - may get you thinking the worst. You may rush to the emergency room fearful that you're sick, having a heart attack, or dying.
Luckily, in most cases, anxiety falls into the category of "its bark is much worse than its bite." What's often happening is that the mind gets caught up in a process called somatization. The word somatization comes from the Greek for "body" and basically means that the mind transforms emotions into physical symptoms.
According to research, our minds tend to transform emotions into a few main categories of physical symptoms.
- Ever had a tension headache? When anxious, you may be more likely to clench your fists, tense your jaw, or furrow your brow. The tension in the muscles can lead to headaches and backaches, chest pain, shortness of breath, and hyperventilation.
- Ever felt a wave of nervous nausea? Anxiety can make the smooth muscles that line your intestines and stomach go into spasm, triggering abdominal cramps, nausea, heartburn, or diarrhea. And the smooth, tiny muscles inside of the blood vessels can spasm, too, causing migraines and spiking blood pressure.
- Ever felt faint? During times of high anxiety, your senses can become overwhelmed. Your breathing becomes shallow and fast, leading to hyperventilation and feeling like you are about to faint. However, fainting during a panic attack would require a drop in blood pressure, which is quite the opposite to what is actually going on. The stimulation of your body by the "fight or flight" hormones actually causes a rise in blood pressure.
Many of the symptoms mentioned are common during panic attacks and could be easily mistaken for something more serious - especially when you're distressed and unsure about what's happening to you.
That being said, sometimes symptoms are serious and do require emergency medical attention. If you are unsure whether your symptoms stem from anxiety and panic or from an underlying physical problem, do not hesitate to seek medical attention.