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I have dealt with anxiety trouble since I was a teenager. As it is a chronic condition, the severity of it comes and goes. Sometimes I feel fine, the anxiety is quietly humming away in the background and I can carry on as normal. Other times, I feel so unwell that I can’t do much more than get out of bed. It is not unheard of for me to take a day off from work or cancel an outing.
Like all mental illnesses, there is a stigma that surrounds anxiety that is unfair at best and downright harmful at worst. The people I know with anxiety have often expressed annoyance at being told that what they are experiencing is ‘all in their heads’ and that they should ‘just get over it.’ Indeed, sometimes people get downright angry about people with anxiety – saying that people dealing with the illness are being selfish drama queens when there are people out there with ‘real’ illnesses. And just to show how pervasive this stigma is, sometimes, when I’m feeling really down, I think these angry thoughts about myself.
It has recently occurred to me that maybe one reason why this stigma continues to exist is because most people (including many anxiety sufferers) do not understand the myriad ways in which anxiety manifests itself. Anxiety is not always just a heightened sense of panic, or feeling a little more stressed than necessary sometimes.
There are literally hundreds of different physical symptoms; ways in which the human body reacts to anxiety, and each of these symptoms can vary in severity from mildly annoying to completely debilitating. In an effort to raise awareness, I have compiled a list of seven of the common, yet perhaps not well known or understood, symptoms of anxiety.
1. Stomach Trouble
Think about when you are nervous, and it feels like your stomach is twisting and turning so much that you wonder if it was a contortionist in a previous life. Now, imagine that feeling all of the time, and you have some idea as to what anxiety stomach trouble is like. What happens is that when a person is stressed, the body will suppress non-essential systems so that the blood can travel to the areas of the body that need all of the energy it can get for the ‘fight or flight’ response. The digestive system is one such system. When this only happens every now and then, it does not normally cause any long-term problems. But the bodies of people with anxiety exist in a frequent, if not constant, stressed state. That continued suppression of the digestive system often leads to stomach problems such as stomach aches, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea and constipation.
2. Burning Skin
I am often really itchy. Sometimes the itchiness is caused by some sort of dry skin condition (dermatitis or eczema), and sometimes there is no apparent underlying skin problem. Anxiety, it turns out, is responsible for both sources of itchiness. In periods of increased stress, existing skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis flare up (this is also the case for things like mouth ulcers and cold sores). If a person is in a constant state of stress (such as when they have anxiety), it stands to reason that these skin conditions are constantly flared. Stress hormones also heavily impact the nervous system, so if a body is in this constant state of stress, the overly stimulated nervous system and sensory organs can ‘misbehave’ and accidentally send out signals of itchiness, as well as signals of pain, tingling, and numbness, when there is no need for those sensations to be there.
3. Brain Fog
In my opinion, this is one of the most distressing symptoms anxiety brings to many sufferers, myself included. Brain fog feels like there is a barrier between the brain and reality, so it is like being permanently detached from the surrounding world. There are a few reasons why brain fog happens in people with anxiety, including the suppression of the more rational parts of the brain like the hippocampus (which deals with learning and memory) in favor of the areas that sense danger, stress hormones causing increased electrical activity in the brain, and anxiety-induced exhaustion (addressed below).
This causes, among other things, difficulty in concentrating, in remembering things, in computing and comprehending new information, and in summoning up the brain power required to do intellectual tasks. This frequently makes parts of my job, which includes analyzing data and writing creative copy, more difficult than normal. What I find most distressing about brain fog is the constant feeling of detachment, where it is like nothing is real.
This is not a symptom that I personally experience very often, but I have known it to happen with others. When the body is stressed, it prepares itself for the fight or flight response in a number of ways, including increasing blood flow, increasing heart rate, making the sufferer breathe too little or too much (hyper/hypoventilation), and overstimulating the nervous system (as mentioned before). If these things go on for too long, it often upsets a person’s sense of balance, which causes dizziness and light-headedness. In extreme circumstances, it can lead to fainting.
This is an example of the stress response doing what it sets out to do. The stress hormones the body secretes stimulate the areas of the body that, back in prehistoric times, needed fuel and energy for either fighting an immediate threat or running away from one (hence the term ‘fight or flight response’). These same areas get stimulated in people with anxiety, but because that immediate threat is not actually there, that pent up energy has nowhere productive to go. As such, people with anxiety are frequently restless, engaging in behaviors like wringing their hands, tapping on tables, fidgeting, pacing, or bouncing their legs when sitting down. I myself am very much a sufferer (for lack of a better word) of bouncing leg syndrome. When my anxiety is particularly bad, my leg bounces so much that it starts to go numb.
This is another symptom that I have not personally experienced very often, but many people with anxiety suffer from a lot of pain, which can happen for a few reasons. For one, the fight or flight response causes muscles to tense up. If the fight or flight response is always on, those muscles remain tight for long periods of time, causing body aches and pains. Also, just like an overstimulated nervous system can send out false messages of itchiness, it can likewise send out false messages of pain. Lastly, stress in itself affects the body’s ability to regulate pain, so any sources of pain an anxiety sufferer might have for unrelated reasons can become more severe as a result of anxiety.
Lastly, anxiety frequently causes fatigue and exhaustion. Think again about times when you have been nervous or stressed. After that stressful period ends, many of us feel tired. This is because the elevated stress response causes one’s body to burn energy more quickly. If that stress response occurs frequently or is constant, like with anxiety sufferers, the body runs out of energy more quickly. I am always at least a little bit tired, and considering how my average day consists of elevated stress and panic, worry, upsetting thoughts circulating in my head, stomach trouble, restlessness, and brain fog, I do not find my tiredness surprising. In extreme cases, this constant exhaustion can turn into chronic fatigue.
These symptoms, as well as hundreds of others, demonstrate why the stigma surrounding anxiety and other mental illnesses needs to be broken, and these illnesses need to be taken seriously.
Whether we like it or not, there is no doubt that anxiety causes and/or exacerbates an enormous range of health problems, and to have the underlying condition that causes these problems waved off as being ‘all in [our] heads’ is to do the sufferers an injustice.
To paraphrase a quote from the great man himself, Albus Dumbledore, “Of course it is happening inside our heads, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
[Feature Image: Light skin person with shoulder-length blonde and brunette hair is sitting in a white tub with white tiling surrounding. They are laying with their head back against the wall, eyes closed, with one hand resting on the crown of their head. Source: Flickr Renaud Photo]