No matter whether you have a mental illness or not, we all know what anxiety feels like. It’s a natural part of life, a survival mechanism that helps us get by – but sometimes that mechanism goes a little haywire. Anxiety disorders make sufferers feel a heightened form of regular anxiety, yes, but it can also cause a number of physical symptoms, and can even be intensely painful at times.
It’s a common gripe with doctors that mysterious physical symptoms are often written off as ‘anxiety’, however it is actually a diagnosis worth exploring when it comes to mystery symptoms. While it’s different for everyone, anxiety can cause a myriad of physical effects along with the mental and emotional, and many of these aren’t commonly linked to the mood disorder.
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If you’ve ever been to a doctor or a therapist about your mental health, you may have done what’s known as a DASS (Depression, Anxiety, Stress) test. These ask you to identify what symptoms you are suffering from, then classifying what they may be linked to.
The symptoms linked to anxiety may come as a surprise to some people, however. These include “I was aware of dryness of my mouth,” “I experienced breathing difficulty,” “I experienced trembling (eg, in the hands)” and “I was aware of the action of my heart in the absence of physical exertion (eg, sense of heart rate increase, heart missing a beat).”
In fact, out of the seven symptoms linked to anxiety, four of them are largely physical. A diagnosis for generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is not usually made without the existence of multiple physical symptoms.
Where Physical Symptoms Come From
The reason for these feelings, as with the psychological symptoms, is chemical. When you’re feeling a higher than usual level of anxiety, raised levels of adrenaline in your system can lead to physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, muscle tension, increased heart rate and abnormal breathing.
In more severe cases, breathing difficulties can become more intense and can even cause dizziness and lightheadedness, chest pain and numbness. Anxiety can also be expressed in the gut, causing nausea, stomach pains, diarrhea and more.
These symptoms can cause secondary symptoms, such as chronic insomnia, when the presence of constant anxiety prevents sufferers from ever getting a good night’s sleep. Anxiety can even lead to ongoing muscular and jaw problems due to constant tension in those areas.
For people who suffer from medical or health anxiety (more commonly be referred to as hypochondria), this can be a special kind of hell. Health anxiety is a condition where people obsess over their health, fearing that they are unwell or have a dangerous undiagnosed condition.
With this condition anxiety becomes a cycle, where the physical symptoms cause anxiety over one’s health, which exacerbates physical symptoms, which increase the level of anxiety, and so on.
What Physical Symptoms Of Anxiety Feel Like
As someone who experienced predominantly physical undiagnosed anxiety, it took a long time before I accepted that what I was feeling was in fact symptomatic of a mental rather than physical illness.
For me it started largely in fatigue: finding it hard to ‘turn off’ and sleep at night, or being tired throughout the day no matter how long I slept. I had chronic headaches, random periods of breathlessness and odd ‘attacks’ of sharp chest pain that left me worried I was headed for a heart attack.
While I was always careful to keep up with my regular check ups and blood tests with my GP, taking iron or vitamin D or whatever else was recommended never actually helped my symptoms. They began to be exacerbated with odd symptoms like tingling numbness in my fingers, nausea and trembling through my body like I was sick with a fever.
After clearing my symptoms with yet another blood test, and an ECG to make sure everything was okay with my heart, my GP almost reluctantly suggested anxiety could be the cause of my symptoms. To her relief, I agreed to explore that option, if just because I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time.
Now the symptoms are easier to manage, even if it’s only because I know where they’re coming from. I still unfortunately experience bouts of more severe anxiety that are harder to control. These present as periods of tight, persistent chest pain coupled with a general feeling of unease or wrongness, and can be very uncomfortable bordering on painful to endure.
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Why Understanding Physical Anxiety Matters
As with any other mental illness, awareness is important both for sufferers to understand what they are experiencing and for those around them to know what they are going through and be able to support them through that. Too many people still believe anxiety is simply being worried, and don’t understand how crippling it can actually be.
One of the most misunderstood elements of anxiety are panic attacks. These can be extreme events for sufferers, with symptoms of intense chest pain, numbness, dizziness and a racing heart, they can often be mistaken for heart attacks. For many the symptoms are so severe they describe it as feeling like they’re about to die.
For anyone not familiar with these attacks as a symptom of anxiety, they can be highly upsetting events, and attacks can be lengthened by increased anxiety about the attack itself. Some people can even unintentionally trigger an attack simply from fear of an attack occurring again.
Relieving Physical Anxiety
Because these physical symptoms are so closely linked with the psychological ones, it can be difficult to alleviate or even just deal with them. Most of the symptoms will fade as you calm down, but with generalised anxiety disorder that’s easier said than done.
There are some small things you can do to help with painful symptoms of anxiety, but as with all things to do with mental illness, your mileage may vary.
For most physical symptoms of anxiety, going for a walk or doing exercise can help to ease your symptoms. As anxiety is just your body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism overreacting, doing the physical activities your body is ‘preparing’ you for can alleviate the uncomfortable feelings. Just take it easy – if you feel unwell or lightheaded, don’t feel like you have to push yourself.
Other things that calm you down will help too, whether it’s meditation, aromatherapy, going outside, cuddling a pet or just having a nice warm bath.
For a tight, painful feeling in your chest it can actually relieve symptoms slightly to have a friend hug you firmly – not only is it emotionally beneficial, but the pressure on your chest will ease the uncomfortable feeling a little. You can even ask someone (friend, family or beloved pet) to lie on your chest, or just press your palms firmly to your sternum for a few seconds.
If you’re struggling with unmanaged symptoms of anxiety that aren’t easily banished, the best thing to do is to book in with a therapist to develop some techniques you can use to calm intense moments, or at least just talk to your GP about it.
If symptoms continue to be extreme, some doctors will prescribe ‘as needed’ medications that work immediately to relax you, but as most of these can be highly addictive it is usually only prescribed in more severe cases.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support or someone to talk to, contact the Lifeline Australia hotline at 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service at 1300 65 94 67 or the Kids Helpline (for ages 5-25) at 1800 55 1800.
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