The physical symptoms of anxiety can be alarming and frightening. At times they can come on very suddenly without any apparent trigger, causing us to fear the worst. People experiencing an anxiety or panic attack may rush to the emergency room, convinced that they are sick, having a heart attack, or even dying.
This aspect of anxiety is a result of the mind engaging in a process called somatization, where emotions are transformed into physical symptoms.
The following are several of the normal, yet troubling, physical expressions of anxiety:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Heart palpitations (or ‘racing heart’)
These first two symptoms can often be mistaken for a heart attack but are actually due to increased cortisol and adrenaline levels.
- Shortness of breath (usually due to hyperventilation)
- Choking or tightness in throat
While a common stress reaction, this sensation can be misinterpreted as something serious, such as anaphylactic shock.
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Weakness in legs and arms
‘Going weak in the knees’ is another common stress response. Limbs can feel rubbery, shaky or even too stiff to move.
- Excessive sweating or hot flashes
- Nausea and other stomach distress
These anxiety symptoms can range from queasiness to sharp pain and have been mistaken for ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, food poisoning, and other illnesses.
Jaw pain, back pain, and other types of stiffness, soreness, and spasms can be a result of tense muscles due to stress hormones.
- Difficulty thinking and concentrating
Sometimes called ‘brain fog’ this symptom is a sign that the mind is overwhelmed and needs to relax.
- Seeing spots, flashing lights or tunnel vision
- Ringing in the ears
Adrenaline’s ‘fight or flight’ response can trigger a hypersensitivity to sensory cues, resulting in visual and auditory symptoms of anxiety.
What Can I Do?
Each individual experiences his or her own unique version of anxiety, so finding the most effective treatment depends on each person’s specific set of symptoms and underlying causes. While psychotherapy and prescription medication are common and effective types of treatment for many anxiety disorders, there are also strategies people can incorporate on their own to manage anxiety.
- Educate yourself
Learn about the signs and symptoms of anxiety in order to accurately identify it. Be aware of the way that worrying thoughts can increase these symptoms in order to better manage your own stress response.
- Know your personal triggers and stressors
Not every stressful situation can be avoided, but by preparing in advance how you will handle such a situation, you will feel a greater sense of control and limit the negative effects of anxiety.
- Exercise and stay healthy
Studies show that regular exercise can help relieve stress and reduce many anxiety symptoms. A healthy diet and getting enough sleep are also important factors in successfully managing stress.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol
While people may turn to these substances with the short-term goal of decreasing anxiety symptoms, they produce long-term problems by interfering with sleep, interacting with mediations and disrupting emotional balance. Stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes and energy drinks only worsen the symptoms of anxiety.
- Surround yourself with support
Talk about your experiences with others such as friends, family, or professionals. Support groups, whether in person or online, can be another helpful support.
Knowledge is Power
Anxiety is a normal response of the mind and body to a perceived or potential danger. Knowing your own individual response to anxiety can help your mind learn how to calm your body, preventing anxiety from escalating and possibly even eliminating unnecessary trips to the emergency room.
However, sometimes physical symptoms are serious and may require medical attention. If you are not sure whether your symptoms are due to anxiety and panic or to an underlying medical condition, it is best to talk to your doctor or other medical professional to get an accurate diagnosis.
For further information on anxiety disorders and other behavioral health concerns, resources and wellness, go to www.csifdl.org.