Almost all of us know what it is to be anxious - at least in the sweaty-palm-I’m-just-about-to-fail-an-exam sense. But those of us who have the unfortunate task of living with anxiety on a daily basis know it encompasses a lot more than the occasional jitters. And this entails the discovery that anxiety is just as much physical as it is mental.
And there’s every reason for this.
Prolonged anxiety leaves the body in an almost permanent state of fight-or-flight. Fight-or-flight is our body’s survival instinct, a state of “high alert” designed to protect us from danger. We inherited fight-or-flight from our caveman ancestors when the ability to sense and react to danger was quite literally a matter of life or death. Of course, the reality is that nowadays we don’t need this protection mechanism in quite the same way. Fight-or-flight might save us from embarrassing ourselves in the boardroom, but we’re not going to find ourselves having to run from a sabre-toothed tiger anytime soon.
The problem isn’t with fight-or-flight in itself but rather when we get “stuck” in this state for a prolonged period of time. Fight-or-flight is literally exhausting to the body as it desperately pumps adrenaline around the body, priming ourselves for our best performance when under attack.
High levels of anxiety like this play havoc with a whole array of different body systems - all the way from our hormones and digestion to our muscles and eyesight. This can cause us to experience a wide number of uncomfortable physical symptoms - which can happen with or without the tell-tale signs of anxiety most of us are familiar with, such as fear and worry.
The most confusing thing about this is that these types of symptoms might not look like anxiety at all.
When we’re living with chronic stress, it can manifest in the body in lots of different ways. Here are a few things to look out for:
Aches and pains
Aching shoulder? Neck tension? Grinding teeth? These could all be physical signs of anxiety. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, the body sends blood flow towards our largest muscles so they’re “pumped” and ready for action. Over a long period of time, this can cause aches and pains or awkward tweaks and twitches in our muscles.
Migraines and headaches
Fight-or-flight causes a surge of adrenaline in the body, a known trigger of migraines. It can also tamper with our hormones leading to migraines and headaches.
Dizziness or feeling ‘out of body’
When we’re under heavy amounts of stress, our breathing speeds up gearing us up to flee the danger or fight. Heavy breathing leads to hyperventilation with less blood going to the brain. In response, the brain looks after itself by going into “protection” mode. This can lead to a feeling of being “spaced out” or feeling as though you’re out of your body.
Digestive troubles or IBS-like symptoms
When we’re in high alert, the body sends our blood flow to the body systems it deems less crucial. Unfortunately, this means our digestive system often falls short. A slowed digestive system hyperlink can cause IBS-like symptoms such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea and general digestive discomfort. Over time, this can lead to something called Leaky Gut Syndrome where the intestinal wall becomes damaged, thereby allowing toxins and undigested food into the bloodstream. This can also impact the way that we absorb nutrients leading to food intolerances and nutritional deficiencies.
It’s easy to forget that the brain’s a muscle. Spiralling thoughts and constant worries force the brain into overdrive which can be literally exhausting, causing the type of tiredness that doesn’t get replenished with a good night’s sleep.
Fight-or-flight causes the pupils to dilate to let more light into the eyes so we can see the threat more clearly and respond better. But this is only meant to be temporary. Dilated pupils can cause soreness around the eyes, twitching, blurry vision or long-term sensitivity to light.
Falling sick more often
We all get sick from time to time, but if you find yourself catching the flu every time it makes its way round the office, then there might be something going on. Chronic stress over-exposes the body to cortisol and a range of other stress hormones, causing inflammation and wear and tear on our defensive mechanism.
Cold feet or hands
There’s a reason for the expression “getting cold feet”... When the body prepares for fight-or-flight, the body pumps blood to our most important organs, quite literally leaving our feets and hands in the cold.
Heart palpitations or chest pains
The stress response causes surges of adrenaline in the body which can lead to palpitations or a “fluttering” sensation in your heart. Fight-or-flight also stimulates our heart rate in order to circulate blood throughout the body to leave us better equipped to deal with the threat at hand.
Feeling like your face is hot or burnt
An over-stimulated nervous system can have an impact on the nerve endings on our face. This can cause a feeling similar to sunburn, a tight burning sensation in the face, referred to as Burning Face Syndrome.
Pins and needles
When we start hyperventilating with anxious thoughts, this can restrict the amount of carbon dioxide in the body causing the body to contract. These contractions can give the feeling of pins and needles in our hands and feet.
Anxiety has been linked to eye floaters - small, particle-like objects that appear to float around our eyes. These can be caused by hypersensitivity when the nervous system is over stimulated.
Rashes, itchiness or changes to your skin
Stress hormones cause the skin to produce excess oil, which can result in skin complaints like acne. These stress hormones also cause inflammation in the immune system making existing skin issues much worse, causing flare ups in psoriasis or eczema.
Changes to sleep and insomnia
Adrenaline keeps us in a state of “high alert” which can lead to sleep changes - finding it difficult to fall asleep at night, or waking up throughout the night.
The simple answer is no. The physical symptoms of anxiety are very real.
That said, anxiety itself can also make us hypersensitive. Our bodies are changing all the time as they adapt to the world around us. Some days are naturally going to feel better than others… Those are the days when we might wake up bright and sparkly, with a natural spring in our step. Other days, we might feel more sensitive or vulnerable; less robust somehow.
Anxiety can distort our perception and make us extra sensitive to small tweaks and sensations in our bodies that would otherwise pass by unnoticed. When we’re anxious, this hypersensitivity can cause us to panic when we feel these changes, heightening our anxiety and thereby spurring on physical symptoms. This can lead to a vicious cycle. One example of this is health anxiety, a condition where the sufferer becomes obsessional and preoccupied with the idea of being ill, making their anxiety worse in the process.
When we start to experience uncomfortable physical symptoms our first instinct is to try and fix it. Whether it’s a migraine pill, a sleeping aid, or even a desperate attempt at eliminating food groups…
But when those things stop working - what happens next?
The problem is that most of these solutions only fix our symptoms temporarily, or worse - we become reliant on them. If your migraines are being caused by your anxiety, a pill is probably only going to numb the pain for a while. If the root of the problem isn’t being addressed then the symptoms start creeping back in again.
The first step is to acknowledge your anxiety as the issue. By dealing with the issue face on - at its core - we stand a much better shot of healing ourselves as a whole.
Speaking to a therapist provides the space to open up about things that are worrying us. That’s not to say that anxiety is something we need to pinpoint or that we can somehow ‘fix’. But when we start to understand the whys and hows, the root of the issue - whether it be something that’s happening to us now or maybe something from our past that we haven’t yet dealt with - these bottled up emotions can be expressed and explored. Most of us find that awareness alone is enough to ease some of the intensity as we recognise our worries for what they are, and learn better tools to manage anxious thoughts.
Sometimes anxiety takes hold because we’ve fallen off track and lost sight of the things that really make us happy. Therapy is all about YOU. Whilst we might talk to friends and family, an impartial, objective standpoint can help us see things in a different light. From there, we can start to make small but important changes in our lives. Maybe it’s about switching up our routine - getting outside more, walking to work instead of taking the tube, offering to take a friend’s dog for a walk, committing to a new exercise class, indulging in an evening bath, taking up a new skill like mindfulness… When we turn the focus back to ourselves and explore the things that make us happy (or unhappy), we grant ourselves the opportunity to find new, healthier ways of moving forward.