What does anxiety feel like?
Updated: Oct 21
If you have experienced anxiety, you will know that alongside the psychological effects, it also brings a range of persistent and intense physical symptoms. These symptoms you feel are real, and have scientific explanations, but they are not a result of a real physical illness.
The fight or flight response
You might be frustrated with yourself for feeling the way you do, but in fact, it is an automatic chain of events. Whilst you may hold your anxious thoughts accountable, the fight or flight response actually happens without you thinking. It is triggered by your autonomic system, which as you may have guessed, is the part of our nervous system that controls our automatic functions. When the body is preparing itself to fight or flight, the brain initiates action from the heart, lungs and muscles. This internal reaction is what causes the racing heartbeat, the hot flushes and the various other symptoms you may be experiencing.
Adrenaline and hot flushes
The root cause of many of the physical effects is adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone that increases blood circulation, breathing and metabolism. All of these things aim to prepare our muscles for exertion. A side effect of the adrenaline rush is a rise in temperature. If you’re thinking “Ah yes! I always get sudden hot flushes and clammy hands” then this is why. In an attempt to cool itself down, the body will sweat. And you know that sudden cold, shivery feeling you get after a panic attack? That’s caused by sweat too. Your body will continue to perspire even when it is already cooling down.
Increased heart rate
The next culprit to call out is hyperventilation. Anxiety makes the brain trigger the lungs to breathe more, resulting in you taking in more air than the chest can handle. Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels become imbalanced, and whilst a shortage of carbon dioxide isn’t dangerous, it causes some frightening symptoms. First and foremost, your heart rate and breathing speeds up. Your heart rate in order to pump blood to the areas we most need, and your breathing to supply as much oxygen as possible to the muscles. You may experience chest pain and difficulty breathing too, which is due to the blood vessels in your lungs contracting. Carbon dioxide levels will return to normal once you’ve calmed down and are breathing regularly again. Deep breaths really do solve everything here. In for seven, out for three.
With your heart pumping ten to the dozen, it’s no wonder that you feel dizzy! Your pounding heart can cause a rise in blood pressure and this is what gives you that lightheaded feeling. It is also not uncommon to experience blurred vision as a result of the adrenaline and hyperventilation. Again, your body is preparing to defend itself or to run away. Your pupils become dilated so that your eyes receive more light.
Muscle tension, aches and pains
You may find that you have aches and pains in different areas of your body, particularly in your shoulders, back, neck and jaw. When the brain perceives a threat, it will tense the muscles in preparation for action. For people without anxiety, the muscles will tense briefly and then relax once the threat has passed. However an anxiety disorder will cause constant muscle tension that will not ease off unless you explicitly practice relaxation or mindfulness techniques. Your posture and lifestyle can also induce muscle pain. Anxiety affects the way you hold yourself, which in turn alters the way your muscles feel. In addition, if you aren’t eating healthily, exercising or drinking enough water, it can affect your body too.
Stomach ache and nausea
The symptom that I find the most distressing is the churning stomach and nausea. Again, that pesky fight or flight reaction is responsible. As mentioned above, our blood is diverted to the areas that need it most. But to do this, blood has to be diverted away from the parts of the body where it is not so urgently required, specifically the stomach and digestive system. The body will also try to get rid of any unwanted weight which could slow it down. This may mean you feel sick and need the toilet more often. This anxiety malarkey is really all fun and games, isn’t it…
Trying to cure each of these symptoms with traditional methods will only have a temporary effect. This can be useful! Fill up a hot water bottle to ease your aching muscles, take five minutes to get your breathing back to its normal rate, and avoid overeating so as not to induce further feelings of nausea. But the long-term cure? Kindness! A proper self-care routine and a healthy lifestyle is what will ultimately allow you to be in control of your anxiety, as well as medication and professional help if required.