Understanding how sneaky anxious feelings can be…
If you look to your (symptoms of anxiety) or emotional reactions as proof that you have anxiety or as proof that (whatever your anxiety trigger is) is what makes you fearful – then you are trapping yourself right from the start.
The symptoms of anxiety are just normal (or exhausted) natural bodily responses that are occurring at the wrong time, the wrong intensity and for the wrong duration. Stop seeing them as proof that you can or can’t do something! They are scary, but, they won’t actually hurt you.
Fight or flight response
We have talked about this in various other places on the web site and most people have heard about it and we are not overly interested in it. It is a wonderful ancient unconscious set of responses that kept us safe thousands of years ago, is still running in our unconscious mind (and body) leading us to experience anxiety symptoms that are natural, just happening at the wrong time.
However, there is another way to look at at rather than explaining the fight or flight response, we would rather call it the Towards Good Things or Away From Bad Things response because so little of what we face in the 21st century is about fighting or running away.
For now, just consider this;
Panic attack = racing heart, shaking, sweating, butterflies in stomach, face flushing (Is this good or bad?)
First kiss = racing heart, shaking, sweating, butterflies in stomach, face flushing (Is this good or bad?)
Roller coaster ride = racing heart, shaking, sweating, butterflies in stomach, face flushing (Is this good or bad?)
The body can only ever give you one set of (unconscious) emotional responses (it is a bit of a one trick pony) they are always the same, whether you choose to label them (consciously) as good or bad, well, that is up to you!
List of the symptoms of anxiety and anxious emotions
These are the main symptoms of anxiety, emotions and bodily reactions that people experience when going through bouts of anxiety or having a panic attack. Each individuals experience does differ and usually you only get 3 – 5 of these symptoms. If you do get lots of them, then, congratulations you a brilliant at being anxious! Remember though, they are only a chemical reaction and they are an unconscious response to a perceived danger and they will not kill you. You are just getting the wrong signal at the wrong intensity and at the wrong time, at any other time these responses would be natural.
- Thumping, racing heart and fear of a heart attack
When we get anxious the release of adrenalin agitates the sympathetic nervous system which signals our heart to beat faster, thus providing more oxygen and nutrients to our muscles ready for any reaction we may need in response to the presenting danger – if that danger is a rabid dog, then it is pretty useful, if the “perceived” danger is going on an aeroplane, then it is not so useful. The heart rate sores from around 70 beats per minute up to 130 or more bpm in a matter of a few seconds (and it is supposed to do that!)
One of the symptoms of anxiety that particularly scares men is the way that the heart feels like it is thumping against your chest, well, it is supposed to, because it is forcing a greater mass of blood through the heart at each pump, the resultant force required causes each squirt of blood to bang into the valves of the heart, just like slamming a door shut rather than closing it gently.
If you then couple this fast thumping feeling with some tightness across the chest as the adrenalin in your body stiffens the muscles across your chest, you can see how it can be misconstrued as something bad. It’s not bad, it is just happening at the wrong time, that’s all.
- Trouble breathing
When we get a bit anxious and panicky and the heart starts beating faster it is often the response of the experiencer to unknowingly switch to shallower breathing pattern (a bit like when a person is sobbing and can’t quite catch her breath). When you breathe in this unnatural manner we tend to breathe in lots of oxygen, however, we breathe out the carbon dioxide in our lungs. This means we have lots of oxygen ready to pass through our lungs into the blood stream ready to feed our muscles, but it can’t get through the lining of the lungs as carbon dioxide is required to aid that process.
That is why some people breath into a paper bag (I am not recommending it) so the carbon dioxide can be re-inhaled back into the lungs. A far better response is to focus on keeping your breathing steady and to not let it get out of control, in fact, focussing on your breath can be a useful distraction at times of anxiety.
- Shaking and twitching
When adrenalin and all the anxiety hormones are released into the blood stream and are moving around the body, they indiscriminately come into contact with muscle fibre and when adrenalin finds a fibrous mass it causes it to temporarily constrict, then it relaxes again. That is what nervous shaking is all about, muscles around your body (especially in the arms and legs) are being switched on, then off, then on, then off – making us shake, the more the adrenalin we have released the more violently we will shake.
- Butterflies in your stomach
All of our internal organs are connected to our Unconscious Nervous System (Autonomic Nervous System) and. as well as, doing what our organs do, they also play a large role in the generation of our emotions. I f you consider it, we experience all of our emotions between our lower abdomen and our upper chest (I don’t experience emotions in my ears or my fingers), so, our emotions are generated by adrenalin being released over the surface of our organs and as they contract, and then relax, we feel these movements and call them emotions.
The most viscerally observable of these is when the outer lining of the stomach is agitated and we call it “Butterflies in my Stomach.” If we get more and more anxious or distressed the adrenalin increases, thus intensify this activity until it becomes a knotted stomach and we may feel nauseous or cramp like discomfort.
- IBS type symptoms
As detailed in the explanation above about butterflies in your stomach, the same thing happens to your bowel and colon and this agitation disrupts the contents causing more than normal levels of gas to be released. That is why IBS sufferers may get so bloated and flatulent, at the same time, because IBS is a stress response the pH of the stomach becomes a little more acidic and as waste passes into the bowel, the bowel doesn’t like that acidity, therefore it releases it own alkaline juices to neutralise and rebalance the environment of the bowel. This extra liquid, plus the agitation is what may manifest as diarrhoea.
But that is only half the problem because many people who have IBS believe that the problem “IBS” this unknown disease that is attacking them, when really their bodies are only naturally responding to stress and anxiety and that is where they need to focus to get the biggest change.
In addition, once a person has IBS their mind has a field day worrying about everything, what they eat, where they go (in-case there is no bathroom), flying and driving may become problems, as does, socialising far from home – all because of the fear of what might happen – which makes them anxious, and around they go again.
- Feeling light headed and experiencing dizziness
For some people, when anxiety strikes, they may become a little light-headed or experience bouts of dizziness, this stems from a couple of sources. Firstly, when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated (fight or flight) blood is sent to the larger muscle groups to fuel them ready for action and this often leaves a little less blood available to flow around the brain, causing some light-headed or woozy feelings.
In other people, when their blood becomes saturated with stress and anxiety hormones it may disrupt the brains ability to operate clearly, much like putting poor quality fuel in your car may make the engine misfire.
- Dry mouth or a wet mouth
In times of anxiety and stress the stomach tends to stop processing food as blood gets redirected to muscles in the arms and legs, as the digestion systems slows down, so does the production of saliva. This can be most easily observed when a nervous person stands up to speak to an audience, often they go to speak, find they have a dry mouth and then need to cough or take a sip of water.
In a few unlucky individuals the reverse happens and they get a wet mouth, similar to the feeling just before vomiting, and this can be very distressing as they fear they vomit in inappropriate situations (although it never actually happens.) This is known as emetophobia and often leads to agoraphobia if not addressed in a timely manner.
- Face and neck flushing
In a few anxious individuals blushing and a red blotchy flushing of the neck and face may occur as the adrenalin released in the body seems to mess up the calibration of the flow of blood to the face. Normally, this used for cooling the blood by bringing it close to the surface when you are hot, however, when feeling anxious this may trip the signal and you begin to blush.
In and of itself, it is not an issue, however, many people become very conscious of the blushing and in their mind begin more stories of what others might think and they become uncomfortable because they can’t hide this symptom of anxiety. It often stops them from doing things that make them the centre of attention including job interviews and dates.
- Crying, eyes filling up and blurred vision
Our tear ducts are plumbed into our central nervous system and were originally used to irrigate and clear our eyes during times of conflict or escape, they still work that way and it is a really useful way for us to function. However, when we experience anxiety or panic the same messages are sent to our tear ducts to release the tears to keep our vision irrigated, yet we don’t really need it, perhaps someone is shouting at us rather than us running through the undergrowth with twigs and leaves brushing over our faces as we try to escape from some aggressor.
Like so many of the symptoms of panic, stress and anxiety, the fear of it happening (in public) may cause you to modify your behaviour, and then, when you feel silly about that behaviour your ego needs a cover up story so you don’t feel silly any more. For example, I can’t go for that job interview because I am afraid I might burst into tears, becomes; “Well, I can’t really do that job.” or “That type of work doesn’t really suit me.”
For some people, when anxiety strikes their vision may become a little blurred or they may find it hard to focus clearly, basically, this is the adrenalin in their body stiffening the dainty muscles around the eyes and thus limiting their dexterous ability to quickly focus in and out. This may alarm the individual, especially, if they are driving and may add to the “circumstantial” evidence that the anxiety is true i.e. “When I drive on a motorway it scares me, especially as I can’t focus clearly.”
The body’s sweat glands are linked into the autonomic nervous system and when anxious the body has the propensity to sweat as a way of pre-cooling itself before the need to fight or run away. So it is quite natural to sweat when nervous, commonly from under-arms, hands, forehead, top lip and your back. Like so many other unwanted symptoms of anxiety this one can often become a source of embarrassment which may result in learned behaviours to limit the exposure to stimuli that may make you anxious and therefore sweaty.
As you learn to stay calm during times of stress and anxiety (become more calm with the symptoms of anxiety) from following the program, you’ll find that the sweat response will significantly diminish.
- Finding it hard to swallow
As your digestion slows down during anxious times the production of saliva reduces and many people experience a dry mouth when they feel anxious. In addition, for some people, it feels like their throat is being restricted in some way so breathing and swallowing becomes difficult and this can feel very scary. (It feels like a lump in the throat.)
Located on the back of the throat is a muscle called the globus and it can be prone to the effects of adrenalin which may make it swell up and stiffen thus constricting the air / food passageway. Although this is rarely life threatening it is still a very scary and worrying symptom of anxiety, so much so, that it is often referred to as globus hystericus.
- Migraine headaches
Many anxiety sufferers get painful migraine like headaches following on from times of stress and panic attacks, for many of these people this can be explained by the effects of adrenalin on the fine and dainty muscles around the eyes. When the person becomes anxious the adrenalin tightens, then relaxes the muscles repeatedly, and this strains and tires them.
Following the anxious episode these small muscles then ache, in the same way your legs might ache the day after doing some strenuous sport. By closing your eyes or relaxing in a dark room the ‘migraine’ passes, because you are not using those muscles to look / focus and therefore they recover quickly. The headache is quite a frontal one that covers one or both eyes and areas of the forehead.
- Shoulder and neck muscle tension
Nearly all people get some sort of tension or stiffness in their neck and shoulders when they are a little stressed (especially people who are suffering from generalised anxiety disorder.) Once adrenalin and all the anxiety hormones are swimming around in your body, not all of them get used or burnt off and those that remain seem to congregate within the large muscles of the neck and shoulders causing them to tense.
Many people go for a massage to release the tension and the massage does soften those areas. In fact, what is happening is the massage is pushing the hormones back into the blood stream, so the muscles soften, only to tense up again 3 hours later!
- Can't think straight
When anxiety hijacks us and we experience the symptoms of anxiety, it is often hard to think straight or remember what techniques you have learned that help you to stay calm or to be in a position to listen to advice. There are two factors that contribute to this numbing of your conscious thought processes, firstly, once your body is full of all the adrenalin and other anxiety hormones it disrupts the quality of the ‘fuel’ that your brain is using (like putting diesel in a petrol car) so it doesn’t work optimally. Secondly, as blood is redirected (fight or flight) to the muscles of your legs and arms it leaves you feeling a little light headed.
- Disassociated feelings
Less common, however, very disconcerting are feelings of being disassociated from yourself or the world, as if, your head is higher up than it should be or your arms don’t feel like they are your own. It feels like life is going on all around you and you are some how disconnected from it. Many people find this experience quite worrying and they feel like they are losing grip on reality.
The program goes into a lot more detail about the causes of the symptoms of anxiety, for now, lets just say that it is a breakdown in the way that your brain collates all of the individual data coming from your five senses, the five data streams are giving the brain the right information, but the mind can’t quite reassemble all the sounds, smells, feelings etc together to form all the aspects of each experience.
This anxious symptom often passes quickly once the fear aspect of it is overcome.
- Numb feet and hands
One of the big retained bodily reactions to the old fight or flight stress response is to restrict the flow of blood to the hands and feet. In he past this allowed us to desensitize our hands and feet when we were fighting predators running across rocky land so we did not (in that moment) feel any pain.
However, when this same numbing occurs when you feel anxious it can feel quite disturbing (as if something is wrong with you) especially if you get this sensation when you are driving or operating machinery.
- Head feels like it is being squeezed
Both sides of our head we have a group of muscles called the temporalis, which is located just above the ears and for some people, their adrenalin seems to locate these muscles and its action on them is to cause them to tense up. As these muscles tighten they compress the nerves between the muscle and the skull and this may cause the feeling that your head is being squeezed or a stress type headache.
In reality nothing is wrong, it just feels uncomfortable.
- Feeling like you will vomit
Occasionally some people feel that they are going to be sick when anxiety strikes them, for example, a person might walk into a meeting a work and their stomach is churning and they feel that they will vomit unless they leave immediately.
There are two aspects to this, firstly, the natural ‘danger warning’ signal from the unconscious nervous system to your stomach to tell you that danger is around (of course it is your boss rather than a lion) however, we are dealing with your unconscious mind not your rational, logical, conscious mind.
Secondly, there is the more psychological element to this. Because the logical conscious mind knows that you can’t just run away from your boss the simplistic animal logic of the unconscious mind comes up with a plan, if you think you will vomit, it is OK to run away.
Understanding the symptoms of anxiety is quite simple when you break it down to a fight between the unconscious trying to keep you safe and the conscious trying to understand what the unconscious is doing.
- Paranoid ruminations
You can read about Paranoid Ruminations Here.
- A racing mind / can't stop thinking
You can read more about Quietening a Racing Mind here.
Sympathetic nervous system versus the parasympathetic
As you follow my program you’ll understand in more detail how we function internally with particular focus on our Autonomic Nervous System, for now, it’s enough to know that this (unconsciously controlled i.e. you don’t know you are doing it) system is responsible for sending messages from our brain to our body and one of it’s tasks is to give us emotions via the agitation of our internal organs (that is why all emotions are felt between your hips and your neck.)
The sympathetic nervous system is the part that fires you up, ready for action by making your heart race (fight or flight etc.) and the parasympathetic is the half that calms you down and relaxes you (and can be stimulated from a yawn). Understanding how this works and learning how to use it more effectively is very important when overcoming anxiety.