How Long Can Anxiety Attacks Last And How Do I Cope With Them?
By Abigail Boyd
Updated August 27, 2019
A panic attack can feel like a nightmare. Your mind races, your throat closes up, and your heart beats out of your chest. Your stomach churns, and you might feel like you're going to be sick. You're certain that you're going to die or something horrible is about to happen to your mind or body. Then, you go to the doctor, and they brush it off as an anxiety attack. How can these symptoms be benign?
Understanding the causes, symptoms, and duration of anxiety attacks can help you regain control over your anxiety. You can't always prevent anxiety attacks, but you can better manage them and any negative impact they have on your life.
What Is An Anxiety Attack?
An anxiety attack, also called a panic attack, is an episode of severe anxiety and fear with a sudden onset. Anxiety attacks can happen whether or not you have an anxiety disorder. These frightening attacks are a result of the body's "fight-flight-or-freeze" mechanism, a deeply ingrained biological process that has evolved over thousands of years to help us survive.
Since the symptoms of an anxiety attack tend to come on suddenly and feel very intense, you may assume that you're having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. An estimated 50% of people with panic disorder visit the ER on multiple occasions due to their symptoms.
People who have experienced one anxiety attack are more likely to have another one in the future. Unfortunately, worry and fear about having a panic attack make it more likely to happen, forming a negative feedback loop. If anxiety attacks become a regular occurrence for you, and you often worry about the possibility of an attack, you may meet the diagnosis for panic disorder.
Possible Symptoms Of An Anxiety Attack
- Fast, pounding heartbeat
- Heart palpitations (can be fluttering, skipped beats, or hard beats)*
- Shortness of breath*
- Feeling like you're choking or being smothered
- Chest tightness, pressure, or pain*
- Increased sweating
- Hot flashes
- Nausea or indigestion
- "Pins and needles" sensation
- Feeling detached from your body
* If you are experiencing these symptoms for the first time and are concerned, you may be having more than a panic attack, call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency room.
Symptoms of an anxiety attack vary from person to person and may be different each time. While symptoms can be intense and terrifying at the moment, panic attacks are never harmful. You can't die from a panic attack, and it can't hurt you.
How Long Can Anxiety Attacks Last?
Anxiety attacks usually come on without warning within seconds. If you experience ongoing attacks, you may sense that an attack is imminent for a few minutes before it starts. Most of the time, anxiety attacks only last for 10-15 minutes, although this can feel like a long time when you're struggling with one.
Rarely, panic attacks can last up to an hour or longer. The symptoms may ebb and then return. While this can be very distressing, anxiety attacks never last forever. Your symptoms will end once your brain is no longer sending a danger signal. You may feel more tired than usual for a few hours up to a day after having one or more anxiety attacks.
What Can Trigger An Anxiety Attack?
Sometimes, an anxiety attack has an obvious trigger. Other times, there may be no obvious reason. Triggers can be psychological or mental. Anything that activates the body's "fight-flight-or-freeze" response could theoretically trigger an anxiety attack.
This reaction is supposed to subside once the threat is dealt with. However, in some people, this system misfires and detects a threat when there is none. Since there's no actual threat in front of you, the stress hormones continue to circulate through your body, causing the acute fear and physical symptoms that you experience.
If certain triggers seem to generate anxiety attacks for you, you may have the urge to avoid these triggers. However, this only cements the association in your brain between the stimulus and the fear. Instead, learn how to develop healthy coping strategies to manage your anxiety when faced with these triggers. For example, if you were in a car accident and now riding in cars makes you nervous, you can learn muscle relaxation and breathing techniques or mindfulness to help you manage your anxiety.
What Happens To The Body During An Anxiety Attack?
- A part of the brain called the amygdala detects a threat of some kind and sends out a neurological warning signal. This triggers a strong feeling of fear or anxiety.
- Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, causing a cascade of physical responses: your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes faster and shallower, and your digestive system slows down. These responses are meant to help you defend yourself or run away in the event of a threat.
- Your attention becomes acutely focused. Your pupils may dilate. Sounds may seem louder and colors brighter.
- Resources are diverted from other areas of the body to your internal organs. You may feel numbness or "pins and needles" sensation in your hands or feet. Or you may notice your fingers, toes, or even your nose goes cold.
These changes occur in a split second, usually without our conscious awareness. Since most anxiety attacks happen out of the blue, you may not realize an attack is coming on until you're in the middle of it.
How To Manage An Anxiety Attack
If you're currently experiencing an anxiety attack or you feel like you're on the verge of having one, you're probably searching for ways to stop it. While you may not always be able to stop an anxiety attack, you can get a better handle on your symptoms and possibly lessen the duration of the experience with the following methods:
- Tell yourself that you're having an anxiety attack. Sudden panic can make you think there's something wrong with your body or that you're in danger. You may jump to the conclusion that you have a heart attack, for example. Remind yourself that what you're feeling, no matter how intense or frightening it seems in the moment, is an anxiety attack. Fearing your symptoms will only make them worse.
- Slow down your breathing. During an anxiety attack, your respiratory rate goes up. Focusing on your breathing and taking slower, deeper breaths-instead of short, shallow ones-can help calm your body. Research has suggested that during an anxiety attack, there may be an imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. To rectify this, breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 and out through your mouth for a count of 6.
- Use grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can draw your attention away from your symptoms and distract you long enough to stop the panic. Try counting five items in the room for each of your senses-5 things you can see, five things you can hear, and so on. Or do a scan of your body, paying attention to what you can feel-your bottom touching the chair you're sitting on, your hands on your lap.
Professional Help For Anxiety Attacks
If you've begun to experience anxiety attacks, you're probably searching for any way that you can prevent them from happening again. If you're struggling with anxiety attacks, take heart. There are proven ways to manage panic and lower the instance and severity of acute anxiety attacks.
Talk therapy is usually the first line of treatment for people struggling with reoccurring anxiety attacks. During therapy, the therapist helps you recognize your triggers and learn coping skills, such as progressive relaxation and mindfulness, to help you manage your anxiety better. This can not only lower thes frequency of anxiety attacks but help you better cope with any attacks that happen.
Medication may also be prescribed by your psychiatrist or physician to help you manage your anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed and studied a class of medication for anxiety attacks.
Another type of medication that is sometimes prescribed for panic disorder is benzodiazepines. This includes medications such as Xanax and Klonopin. However, these are usually only prescribed on a short-term basis as they have the potential for addiction and dependency.
Should I Ever Worry?
As previously stated, panic attacks can't hurt you, no matter how serious the symptoms appear at the time. Still, if you strongly believe that what you're experiencing may be something more serious than a panic attack, such as if you're experiencing severe chest pain, weakness (especially on one side), or confusion, contact your doctor or proceed to the nearest emergency room.
Connecting With A Counselor
Depending on the severity and frequency of your anxiety attacks, you may find yourself avoiding anything that would trigger one. This can limit your world and isolate you, which will only prolong the hold anxiety has over your life.
The first step is to reach out to a counselor for assistance. Online therapy allows you to access help whenever you need it, from a place that is comfortable for you. Click here to begin the process of regaining control over your anxiety with help from the compassionate team at ReGain.us.