When we think of anxiety, we often think of a mental health condition that induces feelings of worry, concern, fear and nervousness. But, although we are absolutely correct to assume that this is a problem that starts in the brain, it is actually just as much a physical state as it is a mental one.
"Anxiety is the feeling you have when you think that something unpleasant is going to happen in the future. Other words such as feeling 'apprehensive', 'uncertain', 'nervous' and 'on edge' also provide a good description of feelings linked to anxiety," explains Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK, in her guide Understanding Anxiety.
It is useful to understand the broad array of physical symptoms that someone with an anxiety disorder or panic disorder can feel both during a panic attack and on a daily basis. Knowing that lots of physical sensations are caused by anxiety can reassure an anxious mind that they are not suffering from a more serious health condition.
It also reminds them that these physical feelings, however easy to misinterpret, are not in their heads – they are very real and have plausible, scientific explanations.
"Anxiety is completely normal and something that all human beings experience from time to time," says Nicky. Therefore, understanding the science behind why our bodies react the way they do can help us break anxiety down, shatter our perception of it being an all-powerful dictator, help us get to know our bodies and, ultimately, take back control.
Here, we look at the common physical symptoms of anxiety and provide a physiological explanation for each.
THE SCIENCE: HOW DOES ANXIETY AFFECT OUR BODIES?
"When you are put into an anxiety-provoking situation, an automatic chain of events begins, often known as the 'fight or flight' response. This response happens without us thinking about it because it is triggered by the part of our nervous system whose job it is to control our automatic functions (e.g. breathing, heart beat, etc). This part of our nervous system is called the 'autonomic system' and is split into two components: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic systems. These work opposite each other and only one can dominate at a time. When we are in any situation that causes us anxiety, our sympathetic system starts to dominate and the 'fight or flight' reaction begins (sometimes also known as the 'adrenaline cascade'). "
It is important to remember that everyone experiences anxiety differently. An individual may feel all or none of the following symptoms or combination of a few. There can also be more unique physical symptoms that may not be listed here.
1. Chest pain and heart palpitations
You may think it's a sign of an impending heart attack but it's not. When you feel anxious or are having a full-blown panic attack, the heart beats faster to pump more blood around the body to prepare for fight or flight.
This action can cause hyperventilation which leads to breathing in too much oxygen. This, in turn, causes a contraction of the blood vessels which can lead to chest pain.
Chest pain caused by anxiety is often felt across different areas of the chest and comes and goes.
It is also important to note that a rush of adrenaline does not damage the heart.
But there's no need to feel silly if you've ever thought you were having a heart attack. Nicky says: "Over the years we have been contacted by many people who have told us that they have had to rush off to casualty because they truly believed they were having a heart attack. Once there, they were told (sometimes after many medical tests), that their problem was entirely psychological."
Note: Whenever chest pain is concerned, it is always a good idea to visit the GP once to rule out any other heart conditions.
2. Shortness of breath
The same applies (explained above) as to why we feel a shortness of breath or pressure in the chest during periods of anxiety.
We are also hyper-aware of our breathing which can cause us to 'over breathe' and take on more oxygen.
3. Limb and muscle pain
There are lots of ways anxiety can affect the limbs. Firstly, similarly to chest pains, an increased intake of oxygen can cause sensations and pain in the muscles. It could also be caused by:
- Tension in the muscles caused by increased stress: Experiencing daily stress can harden the muscles which can cause them to ache or hurt.
- Your posture: Feeling anxious can affect the way you hold yourself, sit, lie and walk which, in turn, can change the way your muscles feel. This is because your whole body is on edge, you might move quicker or slower and rarely completely relax.
- A poorer lifestyle: When feeling anxious, it's easy to forget how to look after yourself - be that eating healthily, exercising or keeping hydrated. All of these can affect the way your limbs feel.
The above reasons can also cause aches and pains in the jaw and face.
4. Skin tingling and numbness/ feeling weak
It is common for anxiety to cause feelings of numbness and tingling. This can occur almost anywhere on the body but is most commonly felt on the face, hands, arms, feet and legs. This is caused by the blood rushing to the most important parts of the body that can aide fight or flight. This, therefore, leaves the less important areas feeling weak, numb or tingly.
It can also be caused by hyperventilation and increased oxygen intake which is particularly felt in the extremities and the face.
5. Temperature: Hotness, sweating, shivering
"The state of arousal [caused by an adrenaline rush] also leads to a rise in temperature. Your body reacts by trying to cool you down – this is why you perspire," Nicky explains.
Such sweating, in turn, can make you feel cold. Especially after a panic attack, as your body starts to cool down but is still perspiring to prevent overheating, it is common to feel cold and shivery.
During a period of increased adrenaline and panic, Nicky says that "the heart pumps more forcibly, which is associated with a rise in blood pressure. It is this rise in blood pressure that makes us feel light-headed and dizzy."
Anxiety and panic attacks commonly cause tension headaches due to a build up of stress. They can feel dull or sharp and occur in different areas in the head.
8. Sleep issues
A build up of stress and tension can make it harder to sleep - as can continuous worry and being unable to switch off. The best thing to do here is try a mindfulness or meditation technique to help your mind and body drift into sleep.
On the other hand, a panic attack and prolonged periods of anxiety can leave you feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted. You should listen to your body and rest, in this case.
9. Stomach sensations
During fight or flight, "blood is diverted away from areas of the body where it is not needed – for example, away from the stomach. This is why we frequently experience a churning sensation in the stomach or a 'butterflies' feeling when anxious."
It is also very common to urgently need the toilet when you feel panicky. This is the body's way of trying to get rid of any unwanted weight which could slow it down during fight or flight.
Similarly to chest pains being misinterpreted as a heart attack, Nicky says that "butterflies in the stomach [are often] thought of as being a sign that vomiting might occur." This however, isn't always the case.
10. Hearing sensations
When you feel anxious and your mind is going at 100mph, it can be hard to focus on the sounds around you. On the other hand, when you are hyper-alert to the potential (if non existent) danger around you, you can be extra sensitive to sounds you would elsewise ignore.
11. Blurred vision
It is common to experience blurred vision during an adrenaline surge. This is because the pupils become dilated in order to allow more light into our vision so we are better prepared to fight or flight. More light, however, can also sometime cause blurred vision. It can also be caused by hyperventilation.
12. Spots and acne
There are multiple reasons as to why anxiety and stress can cause breakouts of adult acne, these are:
- Increased production of the stress hormone which can up the amount of oil your skin produces.
- Increased sweating which can clog pores.
- Touching your skin more, including your face, neck and shoulders, as you feel fidgety and on edge. This transfers dirt from your hands onto your skin and makes you more prone to breakouts.
13. Unhelpful thoughts
It is common to fear the worst case scenario when you are in a state of anxiety which, for some, is a fear they are going completely crazy. If the anxiety is a new feeling or it is a first panic, the unknown sensations can cause the brain to overthink and worry about the cause.
Important note: Although anxiety is common, it is not something that has to be lived with or tolerated if it is becoming unpleasant or changing your lifestyle. Read our guide on signs that anxiety is beginning to take control and visit the Anxiety UK website for information on where to seek help and important helplines.
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