Some emotions sustain us; others drain us. Anxiety—and the worry and fear that accompanies it—can definitely be depleting, especially when our worry is constant or out-of-proportion to the stress at hand. If you’ve experienced anxiety in any form, you know how endless even a few anxious minutes can feel.
Anxiety can come in many forms—some people experience it intermittently in response to certain stressors; others experience it regularly, or near constantly.
You may have also heard terms like “panic attacks,” or “anxiety attacks,” to describe the different ways we experience anxiety. But what exactly is an “anxiety attack,” and how long would you expect it to last? We turned to our board-certified psychiatrists for all the facts.
While the term “anxiety attack” is not a medical term, many people and some experts use it to describe any sustained period of higher-than-normal anxiety. Others use it interchangeably with “panic attack,” which is a recognized medical term that describes sudden episodes of intense fear and panic.
Anxiety can be a normal part of your day-to-day experience—everyone experiences it from time to time. “Typical” anxiety in daily life often has an identifiable cause, like a job interview or an upsetting medical diagnosis—and usually resolves over time or after the trigger or cause has passed. Generally speaking, a “normal” form of anxiety will not debilitate you or keep you from enjoying your life day to day.
Anxiety that feels more intense, sustained, or extreme than expected, or that doesn’t have an identifiable cause, may signal an underlying anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that must be diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, like a psychiatrist. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, like flying or blood, and disorders centered on social triggers or situations, like social anxiety disorder.
One type of anxiety disorder, panic disorder, is characterized by “panic attacks,”—sudden episodes of intense fear. Sometimes, nonexperts use the term “anxiety attack” to mean “panic attack,” which has specific physical and mental symptoms. While anyone can experience panic attacks, those with an underlying panic disorder are more likely to experience more than one.
Physical symptoms of a panic attack include:
Some people, especially those with an underlying anxiety disorder, may experience sustained anxiety for hours, days, or even weeks at a time.
Panic attacks, however, typically last between 5 and 30 minutes, with symptoms peaking within the first few minutes. Sometimes symptoms may linger for up to an hour, or, on rare occasions, longer.
If you think you may be experiencing a panic attack—especially if you are experiencing chest pains—seek immediate medical attention. Your primary healthcare provider or an emergency physician will be able to rule out any emergent (critical) physical causes or underlying medical conditions that may be causing the attack.
Once any physical causes of your attack have been ruled out, a psychiatrist can assess whether an underlying mental health condition may be at play.
Both panic attacks and panic disorder are treatable, but they require the diagnosis and care of a professional. Although it may be tempting to dismiss a panic attack after it has ended, it’s important to do follow-up care to prevent or manage a recurrence.
In the meantime, there are a few strategies you can employ when experiencing a period of higher-than-normal anxiety, or even panic, to calm you down.
Paying attention to your breath can make a huge difference in your anxiety levels. Anxiety tends to force quick, shallow breaths, but by overriding that automatic behavior with deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques, you can actually influence your overall mental state.
“Belly breathing,” or diaphragmatic breathing, is a research-backed way to force yourself into a more relaxed state when you feel anxious:
The intense flavor might be just the distraction your brain needs during a panic attack, and can help bring you out of the fight or flight response. Popping a sour candy when you’re feeling anxious can help shift your attention away from your anxiety and help ground you in the present moment.
The extreme temperature shift is both grounding and distracting—it will help force you into the present, as well as distracting you away from your anxiety.
Management of any kind of higher-than-normal anxiety depends on the cause.If your anxiety is caused by an underlying mental health condition, it’s critical to see a qualified healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and personalized treatment options.
Long term management of your condition may include a combination of anti-anxiety medication and talk therapy, including techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). At Talkiatry, our psychiatrists work with therapists to ensure you have all the tools you need to manage your symptoms and get back to living your life.
With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home, and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Satveet Khela is a board certified physician specializing in adult psychiatry. She has been practicing since 2021.
In addition to focusing on medication management, Dr. Khela's practice also prioritizes a whole person approach, incorporating aspects of nutrition, lifestyle, mindfulness, and supportive or brief cognitive behavioral therapy into the treatment plan. Occasionally, Dr. Khela may believe that additional therapy is also needed and ask that you see a separate therapist to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Khela received her undergraduate degree from University of California Berkeley and her medical degree from A.T. Still University. She completed her residency at University of California San Francisco Fresno, where she served as chief resident in her final year. After completing her training, Dr. Khela worked with medically ill patient's with co-morbid psychiatric illnesses. Throughout her career, Dr. Khela has worked with a diverse set of patient in various stages of their lives.
Dr. Khela focuses on treating patients with anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, OCD, and other mental health issues. She believes in empowering her patients to be active players in their treatment plans to facilitate the best care possible.