Understanding the symptoms of anxiety
We all agree that being anxious and suffering from anxiety is something that we would rather avoid in the first place.
Anxiety is an annoying condition and if its intensity raises, its symptoms may scare the person and bring forth the sensation of not being in control of our body reactions. Experiencing very intense anxiety symptoms in our body may be so terrifying that for many people it may become itself an experience to be very scared of.
In these instances we are talking about what is so called “fear of fear” itself. Fear of fear can bring more intense consequences than anxiety itself, leading the person to avoid any possible situation where they may feel the unwanted anxiety symptoms.
Fear of fear is a very powerful and delicate mechanism that in most cases maintains and/or worsens the initial situation.
The first step to overcome fear of fear is getting to know the enemy.
Let’s try to understand together what is happening to our body when we are so anxious and why.
The first thing that is important to know is that anxiety is an emotion that in our evolutionary history derives from the most primitive emotion of fear, but it has appeared in the history of the human being only after the development of our superior cortical functions. Anxiety is indeed linked to the complex ability of our brain to make long-term plans and assumptions about what could possibly happen in the future; on the contrary fear is a more primitive and archaic instinctive that implies an immediate reaction to a threat in the “here-and-now”.
Secondly, anxiety, like fear, is related to the perception of a threat, and it activates the same brain pathways that are activated by its fellow emotion of fear. In both situations, the automatic reaction that is induced in our body is the fight-or-flight response: our body prepares itself to fight the threat or to run away to ensure survival.
Each symptom that is experienced when we are anxious can indeed be explained and understood in the fight-or-flight perspective.
Let’s see the most commons symptoms that we experience when we are anxious and their physiological explanations:
- Muscle tension: usually we feel our muscles contracted and rigid; if the anxious condition becomes prolonged in time, we may even feel some sort of pain. This happens because our body is preparing itself to fight the threat or to run away; as a consequence our muscles are in tension and ready to react immediately if it is necessary.
- Tachycardia or palpitations: our heart rate tends to increase so that our heart may pump more blood to our muscles and send more oxygen. This helps our muscles to be better prepared to react to the danger.
- Tingling or torpidity in our body’s extremities: we may feel tingling in our hands or feet. This happens because the majority of our blood flow becomes concentrated in our main muscles (for the reasons explained above) and not in the extremities. As a consequence this may be experienced as tingles, torpidity or cold hands and feet.
- Difficulty breathing: we may experience the sensation of having trouble breathing. This happens because the contraction of our muscles may counteract the expansion of our lungs.
- Air hunger: we may have the feeling of needing air. Very often during anxiety we tend to hyperventilate; this means that we increase the number of breaths per minute but the quality our breathing worsens, as we tend to breath using only the higher parts of our lungs (thoracic breathing) and not our diaphragm. Hyperventilation introduces too much oxygen in our body, and the consequence is a worsening of the intensity of anxiety symptoms.
- Goose bumps: muscle contraction involves as well the skin, causing goose bumps.
- Stomach ache: very often we may experience stomach ache, as if someone punched us in our stomach, nausea or gastrointestinal problems. This happens because when the fight-or-flight response is activated, all the energy of our body is suddenly concentrated in facing the danger and digestion is interrupted, as it consumes a lot of energy that needs to be used to deal with the threat.
- Blurred vision: we may have the feeling that our vision is blurred during intense anxiety episodes. What happens is that pupils dilate in order to let more light come in the eye and have a better sight of the danger. Our eyes focus better on details and peripheral vision worsens, giving us the feeling of blurred vision.
- Dizziness and giddiness: we may experience those symptoms as a consequence of hyperventilation. As written above, hyperventilation brings more oxygen in our body. The consequence is the vaso constrictions of some brain blood vessels, so even if more oxygen is introduced in our body, our brain receives less of it and the consequence may be dizziness.
These are the most common symptoms that we may experience when we are anxious. As you can read, each of them has a specific physiological explanation related to the physiological reactions caused by the perception of a threat.
Taking care of your emotional states is a very important way of taking care of yourself.
If you suffer from a serious anxiety condition, gathering information about what is going on is the first step but it doesn't substitute specialist help. Psychotherapy can help you in better handling anxiety symptoms, dealing with hyperventilation and facing the perceived threats that foster your anxiety.
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About Ilaria Tedeschi
Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist in Marylebone, London, with several years of experience working with depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational problems.