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What does anxiety feel like? The physical symptoms you might not know about

Wondering what’s going on inside your body when you’re feeling anxious? We asked an expert to explain why anxiety can cause symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, nausea and more.

It’s safe to say we’re all experiencing some kind of anxiety right now, no matter what stage of the lockdown emotional rollercoaster we’ve reached.

There’s no point in beating around the bush: these are worrying times, and none of us knows what’s coming next. Everything we relied upon – all the plans we’d made, routines we’d built and expectations we’d created – have been replaced by uncertainty.

It’s understandable then that we’re all experiencing some kind of stress, worry or anxiety right now; even those who haven’t had to give much thought to their mental health before and are now being forced to pay attention to their emotional wellbeing.

One of the biggest concerns most of us are facing right now is ourselves or one of our family members contracting Covid-19. If you’ve found yourself checking your temperature multiple times a day and freaking out about the slightest of sensations in your chest, you’re not alone – with so much time to sit and think during lockdown, it’s hard not to let your worries run away with themselves.

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Of course, it’s important to remain vigilant in the face of this virus – but worrying about every little sensation and twinge is only going to worsen your anxiety. In fact, there’s a chance that those feelings may actually be symptoms of anxiety in and of themselves.

“Someone with health anxiety might have obsessions and compulsions relating to illness, including researching symptoms or checking to see if they have them,” Rosie Weatherly, a spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind, previously told the BBC.

“They might misinterpret the physical signs of anxiety, such as a fast heart rate or dizziness, as symptoms of a serious physical illness, like a heart attack.”

A woman with anxiety
People dealing with health anxiety may interpret their symptoms as signs of a serious illness.

One way to cope with feelings of anxiety is to educate yourself about what’s going on in your body – especially if you’re unaware of all the physical symptoms anxiety can cause. Knowing why you’re experiencing specific symptoms can empower you to label your anxious feelings and try and deal with them, whether that’s by accessing free mental health resources or doing a bit of self-care.

It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between an anxiety disorder (a diagnosable mental health condition) and feeling anxiety in response to the coronavirus outbreak – you should always seek professional help if you feel your anxiety is beginning to interrupt your everyday life and you’re struggling to cope.

What are the physical symptoms of anxiety?

It’s important to note that everyone experiences anxiety differently, so you shouldn’t compare your experiences to those of others.

Indeed, while you may experience some of the physical symptoms almost every time you get anxious, other people may not experience them at all.

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According to the mental health charity Mind, there are a number of physical symptoms which can occur as a result of anxiety. These include:

  • A churning feeling in your stomach
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Pins and needles
  • Feeling restless or unable to sit still
  • Headaches, backache or other aches and pains
  • Faster breathing
  • A fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
  • Sweating or hot flushes
  • Problems sleeping
  • Grind your teeth, especially at night
  • Nausea
  • Needing the toilet more or less often
  • Changes in your sex drive
  • Having panic attacks

According to Anxiety UK, other symptoms may include increased muscle tension, difficulty in breathing, a tight band across the chest area, shaking and choking sensations.

Why does anxiety produce physical symptoms?

It’s easy to assume that, because anxiety is a mental health condition, it hasn’t got anything to do with our physical health. However, the two are more linked than people realise.

“It’s important to note that anxiety isn’t ‘bad’ – it stems from our innate stress response which is necessary for survival,” explains chartered psychologist and author Dr Meg Arroll. “This response is triggered by a cascade of physiological processes, driven by the automatic nervous system in conjunction with our endocrine system.”

According to Arroll, understanding the way in which these symptoms work is crucial to understanding why anxiety causes physical symptoms.

A woman with anxiety
The physical symptoms of anxiety include nausea, dizziness and pins and needles.

“The endocrine system is made up of numerous glands which secrete hormones,” she explains. “These hormones enable the body to maintain homeostasis (i.e. keep the body in balance so that it can function optimally) and helps to regulate metabolism, growth, sleep and mood.

“The autonomic nervous system is a type of control system (think of it as your computer’s operating system) which influences heart and respiratory rates, digestion, pupil dilation and sweating amongst other functions. The hypothalamus, which is an area of the brain located just above the brainstem, is an important part of both the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems.”

As Arroll explains, when we experience stress or anxiety, the hypothalamus releases hormones which in turn trigger the endocrine and automatic nervous system, meaning our body goes into “preparation” mode to face the threat our body thinks we’re facing. This relationship is called the HPA axis.

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“The HPA axis is essentially ‘activated’ in times of acute stress, to increase heart rate and blood flow, dilate our pupils so that we can spot any dangers in the environment and utilise glucose for a burst of energy – all so that we are in the best state possible to engage in ‘fight-or-flight’,” Arroll says. 

“This ancient physiological process has served us well – we’ve been able to fight predators such as lions as early homosapiens, or run out of harm’s ways.

“But this operating system hasn’t been updated even though in modern life we don’t have to fight for our lives in such a way. The consequence of this is that the stress response creates the same type of physical sensations, but we don’t have the same use for it, which is why when we feel stressed or anxious our hearts still pound and we sweat.”

How to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety

Understanding why our bodies are responding to our anxiety in such a way is one thing, but that doesn’t make the symptoms any less uncomfortable.

However because, unlike stress, anxiety is often a result of our thoughts and perceptions rather than a physical threat or situation that we have to face,  we can practice psychological techniques to reframe our thought patterns and help reduce our anxiety levels.

A woman tidying her home
Focusing on the things you can control is a great way to help with anxiety.

“The current situation with Covid-19 is an interesting example of how we perceive threat – there is indeed a real threat, but we tend to focus on this rather than take-in the entire picture,” Dr Arroll explains. 

“Yes, tragically tens of thousands of people across the world have succumbed to this virus but many more people have recovered. We really don’t know the true rate of infection and when we have this data, we may see that even more people are asymptomatic. But even now we can use this information to reassure ourselves and reduce levels of anxiety. 

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“Also, if we look at our circle of influence, i.e. focus on the ‘controllables’, there are many things we can do to protect ourselves and others, for example by following the social distancing and hand washing guidelines, keeping ourselves healthy by eating well, getting enough sleep and physical exercise and also practicing self-care at home.

“Overall, appreciating that the physical sensations we’re experiencing are part of our natural, and necessary, physiological stress response can help us overcome and control them.”

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