Contrary to what some may believe, anxiety isn't something that just happens in your head. Anxiety refers to a very real mental health condition - and for many, it is experienced on both a mental and physiological level.
The term "anxiety" is often used flippantly, but in reality anxiety is a condition that should be diagnosed by a mental health professional. There's a big difference between feeling the effects of an anxiety disorder and feeling occasional stress. Stress is often in reaction to a life change or other trigger; symptoms of anxiety sometimes develop in response to those things, but can also occur at random. These symptoms can be difficult to manage and can hugely affect the quality of a person's life.
Some of the symptoms of anxiety are more well-known - especially the ones related to thoughts and emotions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a person with anxiety to worry excessively or experience irritability and mood swings. However, some symptoms of anxiety are more physical. Here are a few you may not know about.
The dizziness that can come with anxiety is actually physical - it's not all in this person's imagination. The vestibular system, comprised of your inner ear and specific areas of the brain, is responsible for your sense of balance. Researchers believe that parts of the brain related to anxiety somehow are related to the areas of the brain that keep you feeling spatially balanced. As a result, many people will experience sudden onsets of dizziness in tandem with anxiety.
You might not think of feeling restless as a physical symptom, but for those with anxiety it can feel out of their control. Restlessness is characterized by an energetic feeling in the limbs that causes an uncontrollable urge to move. This can end up causing symptoms such as tapping your feet, shaking your leg, or finding another outlet for the influx of energy. You may have heard of restless leg syndrome - this is a specific and common example of restlessness that's difficult to control.
Having tense muscles can happen for a number of reasons, but for people with anxiety it can become fairly common. It's unclear why there is a connection, but tensing muscles under stress may become more chronic for someone living with anxiety. The chronic tension can wear and tear on muscle systems resulting in back pain or other ailments.
Increased heart rate
Anxiety can sometimes trigger a "fight or flight" response in the body, which triggers certain stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones create a physiological reaction. Part of this reaction is an increase in heart rate and constriction of blood vessels. The reason for this reaction is to increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, in case they need to work harder in response to a threat. However, it is rare that there is an imminent physical threat when a person is experiencing anxiety. A person's heart rate may spike while they are sitting at work, for instance, and it can take some time for it to slow back down.
Feeling too hot or too cold
Due to the altered circulation that can come with anxiety, hot flashes are not uncommon. Narrowing blood vessels can affect body temperature. A person may, for this reason, feel too hot when they are anxious. Conversely, sometimes the body will sweat in response. This can sometimes be too effective and cause a person to feel too cold.
Some will experience changes in breathing patterns when dealing with anxiety. This can be characterized by short, shallow breaths. When this begins to happen, people will often try to breathe deeply to get enough oxygen, since they are concerned they are not getting enough. However, that can worsen the situation. The problem isn't too little oxygen, it's too much. The "fight or flight" response can trigger these changes in breath as a mechanism for getting more oxygen in the body to deliver to supply to the heart. The short breaths can quickly worsen and turn into hyperventilation. There are some breathing and relaxation techniques that may work to return breathing back to normal before it spirals out of control.
Many experience this symptom as "nervous sweating." Sweating in response to anxiety is completely normal; it's a reaction to the circulation changes discussed earlier. When your heart rate speeds up and your blood vessels constrict, it can cause your body temperature to rise. In an attempt to cool down, your body may start to sweat - regardless of the temperature of your surrounding environment. This can also happen in people who do not have an anxiety disorder under periods of stress.
When you feel fear, you might shake. For someone with anxiety, the body perceives fear even when there is no real or imminent threat. This can cause someone with anxiety to tremble or shake often. The "fight or flight" response to anxiety or stress sends messages to your brain to prepare your muscles for action. When primed to act, your muscles may twitch or shake, appearing as a tremor.
Many people are aware that chest pain can occur due to a heart attack or acid reflux. But you may not know that anxiety is also a common cause of chest pain. Some studies suggest that as many as one in every four patients concerned about chest pain are actually experiencing an anxiety disorder. This can be due to anxiety putting pressure on the heart to work more efficiently or because of anxiety's interference in other systems. Hyperventilation and contractions in the esophagus can both cause the symptom. Chest pain from anxiety can set in quickly and is sometimes described as a sharp, stabbing feeling. Unlike chest pain that comes from cardiovascular distress, which typically occurs when a person is active, anxiety-related chest pain often occurs when a person is at rest. For those experiencing chest pains from anxiety, the symptom usually disappears in a short period of time- around 10 minutes.
Because anxiety can feel so high-energy, some may be surprised that a physical symptom tends to be fatigue. But it's in part because of all the energy that is expended on restlessness, muscle tension and racing thoughts that anxiety can cause severe fatigue. Some people experience fatigue after episodes of panic attacks or other incidents, while others have fatigue that is more chronic. Insomnia and other mental health disorders often associated with anxiety, such as depression, may also play a role.
Muscle weakness is sometimes a symptom of anxiety, though it doesn't occur for everyone. This symptom can show up as a sudden feeling of muscle fatigue, tingling or lack of confidence in muscles to work properly. It can be extremely distressing and make existing anxiety even worse, as some even perceive it as a lack of trust in their own body to support them throughout the day. Muscle weakness is often temporary, and while the direct cause is unknown, there are a few theories. Hyperventilation and the "fight or flight" response can both alter the amounts of oxygen being delivered to your muscles, resulting in sudden weakness or tingling. Constant strain on muscles from muscle tension can also result in fatigue. And for some, it may be a pure consequence of feeling more sensitive than usual to sensations in the body. A person with anxiety may perceive muscle weakness to be more dangerous or extreme than it really is.
When your body is in "fight or flight" mode, it starts to shut down certain processes that it deems nonessential in order to preserve energy in case it's needed elsewhere. As a result, less energy is put towards digesting food. Adrenaline, one of the stress hormones released, also tends to relax the stomach muscles. As a result, a person with anxiety may experience digestive distress more often than the average person. Those with anxiety can experience stomach pain, lack of appetite, nausea, or diarrhea. Some studies even suggest that people with anxiety are more likely to experience irritable bowel syndrome.
The interaction between sleep and anxiety goes both ways: anxiety disrupts sleep and sleep upsets anxiety. The result creates a spiraling path toward mental and physical distress. For people with anxiety, insomnia is common. A person with anxiety may have trouble falling or staying asleep due to racing thoughts and other sources of distress. Attempting to incorporate a calming bedtime routine can sometimes help a person with anxiety to practice better sleep patterns, though there is no one cure that works for everyone. It's worth dedicating some trial and error, though. Here are all the incredible things that happen to your body when you do get the sleep you need.
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