Physical symptoms you didn't know were caused by anxiety

Abigail Malbon
·4-min read
Photo credit: phaustov - Getty Images
Photo credit: phaustov - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Those who experience anxiety will know all too well that there's more to it than just a racing mind - the physical symptoms can be just as debilitating. Anxiety is a regular occurrence for lots of people, while for others it may be relatively new - perhaps brought on by the coronavirus pandemic - and with it comes a host of symptoms you may not have expected.

Dr Belinda Griffiths, GP at Fleet Street Clinic tells Cosmopolitan it's not unusual to be experiencing anxiety - possibly for the first time - after the year we've had. "Anxiety is part of a normal response to stressful situations," she explained. "It prepares the individual for an unexpected or difficult event by releasing hormones which help the body respond to the new circumstances and is beneficial in certain situations.

"Anxiety only becomes abnormal when it occurs without any predisposing cause, especially when it becomes a constant feature, which can then be called an anxiety state."

Photo credit: FTiare - Getty Images
Photo credit: FTiare - Getty Images

What may be more surprising, though, is the physical effects of feeling extremely anxious. While you might be familiar with some of the ways in which the body manifests anxiety, with others you may have been unaware that they were even linked to your anxious state.

"The body responds to a stressful situation by exhibiting what is known as the fight or flight response, which in years gone by, saved individuals from impending danger, by causing the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol," explains Dr Griffiths. "The release of these hormones has an impact on the body which produces many symptoms which can appear individually or in combination."

These include:

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Rapid breathing

  • Tunnel vision or loss of peripheral vision - so that the person can focus on the danger at hand

  • Headaches & dizziness

  • Frequent urination

  • Muscle tension and or twitching

  • Stomach upset/ diarrhoea - due to divert blood flow to muscles and away from less important organs, such as the stomach and digestive tract, so that the person is prepared for flight from the impending danger.

  • Chest tightness

The last symptom may be a particularly alarming one (especially in today's COVID world), but Dr Griffiths says it's fairly common. "Anxiety causes a release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, the effects of which are to divert blood flow to large muscles in the body to prepare for the fight or flight response," she explains. "Blood is therefore diverted away from smaller muscles such as those in the chest wall, which may become tense as a result. Blood is also diverted from the digestive organs, which can cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions." Makes sense now...

"In a panic attack, which is an extreme form of anxiety, the patient exhales rapidly. The outcome of which is to “blow off" carbon dioxide or reduce carbon dioxide in the blood thereby causing a respiratory alkalosis. What happens as a result of this is that the calcium available in the body is reduced, most noticeably in the small muscles of the hands causing a clawing effect known as 'hypocalcemic tetany'.

"The way to reverse this situation is to breathe into a paper bag, strange as this may sound. Please note; always paper not ever plastic. What happens next is that you will re-breathe the exhaled carbon dioxide redressing the balance of ph in the lungs and reversing the respiratory alkalosis so that calcium is made available to the muscles.

"It can be helpful to breathe more slowly. A good way to do this is to count to 3 slowly whilst inhaling and the same on exhaling. It is very difficult to be anxious if you control your breathing in this way!"

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

While techniques can help calm your anxiety, Dr Griffiths explains that there are some circumstances that may require more help. "If you think that your anxiety is all consuming and is in fact an anxiety state, rather than a straightforward response to stress, there are numerous methods available to help you," she explains.

"In the first instance, you should see your GP to discuss your problem and they will be able to exclude an organic cause, such as thyroid disease, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease such as asthma, drug misuse, alcohol and in rare circumstance tumours, all of which can also secrete hormones which would produce the increase in adrenaline, noradrenaline or cortisol.

"If your GP diagnoses you with an anxiety disorder, they can suggest a number of different treatments". These include:

  • Talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, also known as CBT

  • Exercise, such as yoga, pilates and relaxation therapy

  • Mindfulness

  • Counselling

  • Medication

Remember; while it's normal to experience occasional anxious thoughts, if anxiety is taking over your life seeking professional help could be the best thing you do for yourself. For more information, book an appointment with your GP or visit Anxiety UK.

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