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Physical signs of anxiety: what does it feel like?

February 28, 2022

Racing or pounding heart, breathlessness, shaky legs, fluttery stomach, light-headedness…these are all physical symptoms we might experience if we have anxiety. It’s easy to look around and imagine no-one else feels like we do, and that everyone else is coping fine, when in reality we’re definitely not alone!

Anxiety is something everyone gets from time to time, commonly in a challenging or risky situation, or before a high-pressure event such as an exam or job interview for example.

The physical symptoms described above are part of the body’s involuntary response to that situation, ensuring that we’re ready to perform as we need to. The brain floods the body with stress hormones, including adrenaline, to prepare us for action, and tells the heart to pump more blood to the muscles. A rise in heart rate can speed up respiration, as the body tries to take in more oxygen in order to prepare to react.

Everyone’s experience of anxiety is different and unique. We asked a few people who have anxiety to describe how it feels to them. Here are some of the responses we received.

“My system speeds up and it feels like all my blood is going to drop out of my heart. I can’t focus on the here and now. I get tunnel vision and my head feels like it’s in a vice. I feel like I’m going to pass out (but never do). I can’t pick up a cup or pen as my hands are shaking...I have to make a real effort to slow things down.”

“I just go blank. It’s like I’ve frozen – I don’t know what to say or do – I feel like a rabbit in headlights, and I go quiet. Sometimes it’s like everything is in slow motion – my chest pounds and goes all tight.”

“I experience somatic symptoms such as needing to go to the toilet repeatedly. I also grind my teeth in my sleep and have to wear a mouth guard as it gives me nasty headaches and jaw ache.”

“I get disturbed sleep, tightness in the chest and breathlessness, and worrying about things that I have no control over.”

“The physical symptoms such as palpitations, heavier breathing, chest pain and disorientation affect my behaviour and make me want to avoid certain situations.”

The anxiety response can be useful if we’re faced with a threat, or we need to perform at a high level. However, it can be debilitating if it happens a lot, carries on for a long time, or seems to have no cause.

There are two components involved in a stress response:

  • the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, and
  • the parasympathetic nervous system, which pulls on the reins and calms the body down after the threat has passed.

Our bodies do gradually stop reacting and calm down on their own. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do if you’re afraid that your heart won’t stop racing, for example, is to do nothing – and see for yourself how it resolves naturally as the parasympathetic nervous system does its job.

There are also positive actions we can take to help ‘quieten down’ the response – including breathing exercises, practicing yoga, regular exercise, taking a brisk walk, building a strong support network with friends and family, and learning mindfulness techniques.

If the physical symptoms of anxiety are interfering with your life – for example, making you want to avoid doing things, or leading to excessive worrying – think about seeking support.

CBT is a very effective treatment for anxiety. A talking therapy, it will help you understand what’s behind your symptoms, and learn practical skills and techniques for managing them – usually by changing how you think and behave. Find out whether you can refer yourself for online CBT in your area.

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