Mind over Matter: the physical symptoms of anxiety

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In this post, I’m going to talk about the physical symptoms of anxiety, and the power the brain has over the body. For me, the physical aspects are one of the scariest things about my anxiety, and actually one of the most unpleasant things to talk about. But it’s such a significant area that I thought it should be addressed sooner rather than later.

[Quick disclaimer: of course the symptoms I’ve listed below won’t always be experienced by those who suffer from anxiety, nor are they always caused by anxiety. This post is just some of my musings on physical sensations I often experience in connection with my mental health.]

Personally, the physical symptoms and the anxiety itself are all just part of one big vicious circle. I’m a hypochondriac by nature, so experiencing scary physical symptoms which are themselves caused by my anxiety only go on to make me more anxious, and so the symptoms get worse and the cycle continues.

When I’m in one of my really bad phases, which often verge on a panic attack, I can understand the symptoms that come with it. Palpitations, shakiness and shortness of breath, while unpleasant and frightening, are only to be expected at times like this. This is the body’s “fight or flight” response and, even when my brain is overrun with the anxiety demons, I do know deep down that the physical sensations I’m experiencing are caused by what’s going on in my mind, not by any bodily condition.

The really frightening physical symptoms are those that catch me completely unawares. Because I suffer from general anxiety, the following symptoms can catch me out at any time, even when I’m feeling perfectly ok:

  • Heart palpitations

These can be absolutely terrifying, as anyone who has experienced them will know. For me, they’re harmless (so I’ve been repeatedly assured by professionals) but there are few things more unnerving than feeling your heart suddenly giving a ridiculously strong double beat. Because I’m a generally anxious person, they’re just a part of my everyday life (especially when I’m on my period or when I’ve eaten very spicy food…who knew?!), but that doesn’t make them any less scary!

  • Shaking hands

This, again, is something I’ve come to expect as part of my everyday life. My hands shake on and off, not just in the middle of a panic attack but also when I’m going through days at a time of feeling generally anxious. I can also get a shaking in my wrists when they’re tensed and my fingers sometimes twitch, which is a more recent symptom. All the reading I’ve done pretty much confirms this is all down to anxiety, but it can be alarming, especially when there’s no obvious cause.

  • Tightening of the throat

This is another recent symptom. Often, I’ll get a feeling in my throat and can’t really decide exactly what it feels like – it’s a cross between my throat closing up and my tongue being glued to the roof of my mouth. Whatever it is, it makes me start to panic that I won’t be able to breathe through my mouth – but I always can (*touches wood obsessively*), which again suggests this is a symptom of anxiety.

As always, this list isn’t exhaustive and I have exactly zero medical training so please feel free to correct me on any of the above. But I hope the symptoms mentioned above give a little insight into the physical aspects of anxiety that I often experience.

This is a tricky area, because there’s a fine line between reading far too much into the tiniest physical sensations to the point when your brain actually starts to invent symptoms that aren’t actually there, and ignoring something that could actually be something serious and just dismissing it as anxiety. I try to view my physical symptoms as objectively as I can, and think about them rationally to the best of my ability. For my heart palpitations, I was referred for an ECG which confirmed I’m absolutely fine (*again touches wood obsessively*), so that’s a weight off my mind. Now, when I experience a palpitation I’m able to take a step back and view it as the anxious symptom that it really is. I’m keeping an eye on the other symptoms but I always try to view them in light of my current state of mind.

On that note, I suspect my brain/mind/subconscious plays tricks on me. I was worried about the heart palpitations for nearly a year and I noticed that it was only when that worry was removed that the tightening in my throat started. Of course, that could be a coincidence so I am monitoring it, but it could also be that my brain is now so attuned to having something to fixate over that it’s created a new problem. The brain really can have an amazingly strong power over the body; my brother, Louis, used to suffer from a form of social anxiety which manifested in a fear of being sick in social situations. This fear got so bad that he often actually was sick even at the thought of a social event and so the phrase “it’s all in your head” obviously wasn’t applicable for him, and isn’t for a lot of people.

(Louis has very kindly agreed to share his experiences of anxiety in a future post. Stay tuned!)

To sum up: unnatural sensations in the body aren’t something to mess around with and I try to take mine seriously. At the same time, though, I have found it comforting to know that at least some of my scary physical experiences stem from my anxiety, and not from an underlying physical condition. This doesn’t make them any less unpleasant, but it’s always reassuring to be able to take a step back and view an uncomfortable physical sensation objectively through identifying the root cause as the mind, rather than the body.

I hope my symptoms have given an insight into how anxiety manifests itself physically for me. If anyone out there would like to discuss the effects of anxiety on the body, I would love to chat about it. And, as always, any thoughts on the above are hugely welcome!

LOW OF THE WEEK: Friday afternoon. I had a really bad bout of the disassociation panic that I often experience (when I feel so anxious that I start feeling like either I, or the world around me, isn’t real) and it was especially bad while I was on the tube. Luckily I was on my way to see some good friends which always helps, as being around other people always pulls me out of myself, but it was a particularly unpleasant feeling. (Disassociation is something I’m going to address in the future.)

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Being surprised with a totally unexpected card and present from an unbelievably kind and generous friend. The message in the card was so warm and supportive that it genuinely almost made me cry and the present was a beautiful notebook which was just such a thoughtful gesture. Unsolicited acts of kindness really can be one of the most moving things in this world and can make such an unbelievable difference to someone’s mood/wellbeing.

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