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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

What Does Anxiety Feel Like? (Types and Symptoms of the Invisible Killer)

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What Does Anxiety Feel Like? (Types and Symptoms of the Invisible Killer)

At some stages in their lives, as many as 40 million US adults will experience anxiety disorders. That figure, from a report by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America can practically be doubled when taking into account cases of anxiety from around the world.

Yet despite impacting the lives of so many people from across the globe, anxiety remains a misunderstood illness, particularly among two key groups of people: Those who aren’t sure whether the debilitating symptoms they’re experiencing are a sign of anxiety or not; and those whose friends and loved ones are living with anxiety.

Whichever camp you fall into, those first throes of an anxiety disorder are enough to set your mind racing with questions:

  • What does anxiety feel like?
  • How do I know if I actually have it?
  • What can I do to stop an anxiety disorder ruining my life?
  • What can I do to support someone else with their anxiety?

Here, we’ll look into the answers to all of the most common questions about the causes, symptoms and solutions of this most misunderstood of mental illnesses.

Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder

The most common misconception about this illness is that all anxiety is bad. The truth is, a little bit of anxiety can be helpful.

If we start to get anxious about an important exam or a job interview, for example, that’s our body’s way of reminding us that we should do all we can to be prepared and ensure we get the desired outcome.

This is a gift left to us by our ancestors who needed anxiety to trigger a fight or flight response when faced with all manner of wild beasts and dangerous situations that threatened their very survival.

Today, the dangers we face are unlikely to involve potentially being torn limb from limb by a wild beast, but we do still need the fight or flight response to help us make decisions about the best way to survive. If the building we are in catches fire, for example, anxiety is the thing that says “Hey, you know what? We’d better get out of here!”

However, problems arise when our brains and bodies start acting as if we are in a burning building even when we are perfectly safe. In other words, when the level of anxiety we feel is disproportionate to the danger (or in most cases lack of danger) we are in.

When this happens, we are faced with what’s called an anxiety disorder, which can take many different forms.

Different types of anxiety disorders

Whilst a number of common symptoms can occur with all types of disorders, it would be unhelpful to simply give you one blanket answer to the most important question we are addressing here: What does anxiety feel like?

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The truth is that different anxiety disorders occur for different reasons, typically bringing about their own (occasionally overlapping symptoms). If we’re going to tackle your anxiety or that of someone you care about, it’s helpful to look at some of the most common anxiety disorders in turn.

General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

This is the most common form of anxiety disorder. It’s what a lot of people typically think of when they think of anxiety. Affecting one in five American adults at some stage in their lives, GAD is typically more common in women, but that doesn’t mean to say men are immune from it.

Unlike other forms of disorders which can be triggered by a single situation or event, GAD usually leaves you feeling anxious about lots of different things on a regular basis, possibly even every single day.

Experts suggest a wide range of causes for GAD, ranging from an imbalance of Serotonin and noradrenaline to traumatic experiences and substance abuse, though it frequently occurs for no specific reason.

What we can be certain of are the signs and symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder. At a physical level, these can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tight chest
  • Muscle tension
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Trembling or shaking

Meanwhile, the mental and emotional side of GAD can leave you feeling restless and permanently “on edge,” as though your body were overrun with adrenalin. Some people with GAD also report feeling a general sense of doom and despair, or even anger.

Panic Disorder

As the name suggests, someone with a panic disorder will have regular panic attacks even if those attacks aren’t triggered by anything in particular.

Panic attacks can be intense, coming up on you seemingly from out of nowhere and completely paralyzing you.

Though the fear and stress that arise when you go through a panic attack can be incredibly powerful, it’s the physical sensations of an attack that are the most overwhelming. These sensations might include:

  • Feeling choked or short of breath
  • Hyperventilating
  • Feeling like your heart is pounding so hard it might burst through your chest
  • Chest pains
  • Tingling sensations/pins and needles
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling incredibly hot and sweating.

The intensity of these physical changes can be terrifying and leave you feeling like something terrible is going to happen to you. The good news is that although it may seem as though an attack is lasting forever, most dissipate within twenty minutes and nothing bad will happen to you as a result.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Not to be mistaken with simply shyness or an introverted personality type, Social Anxiety Disorder is a crippling fear of social situations. This doesn’t just mean big occasions like parties or being around large groups, but everyday situations like going to the supermarket or even talking on the telephone.

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Experts have suggested that this disorder, also known as Social Phobia, can be caused by a combination of both physical and environmental factors ranging from an imbalance of Serotonin (the brain chemical that regulates mood) to a past history of being bullied or sexually abused. However, like most mental health issues, an exact cause remains largely unknown.

What we do know, is what Social Anxiety Disorder feels like. People with this order usually feel an immense amount of dread about situations which involves interacting with other people. This may be so bad that they avoid such situations altogether.

If you have Social Phobia and you do go into social situations, you may have the overwhelming feeling that people are watching you all the time, or be constantly worried about doing something embarrassing.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling incredibly hot and sweating
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Panic attacks

Phobic Disorders

Social phobias are typically classed as a phobic disorder, as are some of the more widely-known phobias such as Claustrophobia (fear of small spaces) and Arachnophobia (fear of spiders). Any persistent fear and avoidance of a specific thing or situation can be classed as a phobia disorder, particularly if it impacts a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day level.

Though we often think of phobias as “irrational” fears, this isn’t always the best word to describe them. For someone living with this disorder, the phobia is often the result of a traumatic event, making it -to them- completely rational.

What does anxiety feel like in this case?

The most overwhelming feeling is, of course, that of absolute fright when confronted by the fear-inducing object or situation, even if it’s only a picture, video or someone talking about it. This fright can manifest itself physically, often in the form of a panic attack, with much of the same symptoms as listed above.

In instances where the phobia is so bad that it limits a person’s ability to function and enjoy life such as social phobia or agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), it can also lead to crippling depression and other long-term issues.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Thankfully, much more is known about PTSD these days than there was just a few years ago. It is now widely regarded as one of the most crippling of anxiety disorders.

As the name implies, PTSD is caused by going through an incredibly traumatic or stressful event, often leaving the person to experience night terrors and/or flashbacks.

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Given the high number of military personnel reported to have PTSD, it is tempting to think of it as only affecting those who have served in combat, though that isn’t the case. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can impact those who have experienced a wide variety of distressing situations including:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Road traffic accidents
  • Robberies and assaults

Along with vivid re-experiencing of the traumatic event itself, PTSD symptoms also include:

  • Insomnia
  • Hyperarousal (being constantly on the lookout for threats)
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn as a coping mechanism to avoid feeling the pain of PTSD

What can I do if I (Or someone I care about) Have an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are treatable, and there are lots of things you can do to stop anxiety from impacting your quality of life. Here, we will look at some of the most common anti-anxiety activities, strategies and techniques you could put to work from today.

Self-help tips

1. Limit caffeine and alcohol

Both substances can lead to heightened anxiety and even cause panic attacks.

2. Try chamomile tea

Chamomile tea has wonderful soothing properties that can make you feel calm and relaxed, and even help you sleep.

3. Exercise

Never underestimate the power of getting active when it comes to combating anxiety.

If social anxiety disorder means you can’t face hitting the gym, you can always start with a gentle walk, riding a bike or even practising yoga at home.

That said, anything that gets you out in the fresh air is going to do you the world of good. Any chance you can take to get active outdoors will boost your mood and leave you naturally more tired. This can be very helpful if your anxiety is causing you insomnia and other sleep issues.

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4. Try breathing exercises, yoga, and/or meditation

There’s a reason so many mental health professionals recommend breathing exercises and meditation to combat anxiety — they’re incredibly effective.

Youtube is full of videos offering breathing and meditation techniques, though if you are feeling up to it, you might want to consider finding a local meditation or yoga group. The chances are that you will find other people who joined for the same reason as you did and can build a valuable support network of people who really ‘get it.’

Treatment

5. Talk to your doctor

Depending on the type of anxiety you are dealing with, some doctors may write a prescription for powerful medication that can reduce anxiety. Of course, not everybody wants to go down the route of getting medicated, but that shouldn’t stop you from making an appointment.

In fact, for many, visiting the doctor can be the first opportunity they get to open up about their issue. This in itself can be a big help. Your doctor may also be able to make a referral for other forms of treatment, such as therapy.

6. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

Highly effective in tackling anxiety disorders, CBT is a directive, hands-on approach to therapy in which your therapist will help you develop useful skills and strategies for managing and reducing the impact of your anxiety so that you can live a fulfilling and happy life.

Anxiety doesn’t have to control your life

Though anxiety may feel like an all-consuming terror tearing through people’s lives, even at its worse it can’t physically kill anyone. That said it can control your life to such an extent that it kills off any sense of enjoyment or fulfilment that you would otherwise get from being alive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Far from being an invisible killer that keeps you locked up inside your own home (or, worse, inside your own mind), anxiety can be controlled, reduced and even eliminated entirely.

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One day, one step, one moment at a time, you too can free yourself from the clutches of anxiety and begin to really make the most of life in a way you may never have dreamed possible.

Featured photo credit: pixabay via pixabay.com

More by this author

Chris Skoyles

Coach, and trainee counsellor specializing in mental health and addiction.

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Published on October 15, 2021

Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

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Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

When you think of anxiety, several scenarios may come to mind: the endless tossing and turning of a restless night, dread over potential future events, pandemic-related overwhelm, or full-blown panic attacks. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you’ve likely experienced anxiety symptoms at some point in your life. In these situations, you might feel a queasiness in your stomach, racing heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest tightness, some tension in your jaw/neck/shoulders, or worrisome thoughts as you prepare for the worst possible scenario. But does anxiety also make you tired?

After experiencing these symptoms, you may indeed feel fatigued. The sensation could fall anywhere on the exhaustion spectrum, from feeling like you just ran a marathon and need to sleep for two days, to just a little worn down and wanting a quick nap to recover.

Below are 7 ways anxiety zaps your energy and how to restore it.

1. Stress Hormone Overload

Anxiety can make you tired via overloading your body with stress hormones. The “fight or flight” response is a key connection between anxiety and fatigue. In fact, this process is made up of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Anxiety triggers our body systems to go into high alert. This is a natural, involuntary reaction that developed in the human brain for survival.

When humans lived with the real, imminent threat of being attacked by a predator, it made sense for our bodies to spring into action without much preparatory thought. Such dangers are rare in modern times, but our brains continue to respond in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

The hormones and chemicals that flood our bodies to prepare us for safety can both affect and be affected by several body systems, and this interaction itself contributes to exhaustion. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most notable hormones to address here. First, adrenaline is sent out, tensing the muscles and increasing heart rate and blood pressure in preparation to run. Later in the stress response, cortisol is released, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose. This is one of our main fuel sources, so it’s no wonder this contributes to fatigue (see #2).

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You can regulate baseline levels of these stress hormones by regularly practicing yoga, breathwork, meditation, and/or engaging in aerobic exercise.[1] It’s easier to lean into these routines for relief during stress when you’ve already mastered using them during times when you feel calm.

2. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which is shown to be associated with anxiety in diabetic patients.[2] Many people who experience hyperglycemia report feeling tired all the time regardless of their quantity or quality of sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Although this connection has shown more prevalent and prolonged effects in diabetics, it also occurs with nondiabetics exposed to psychiatric stress.[3] In fact, for all people, the natural stress response elevates blood pressure and heart rate as well as cortisol levels, all of which increase blood sugar levels.[4] This means that anxiety causes a double-hit of exhaustion related to blood sugar fluctuations.

Instead of reaching for comfort foods like chocolate during times of stress, take a calming walk around the block. Gentle movement alone is a great stress reliever that incidentally also helps to regulate blood sugars.[5]

3. Negative Mindset

Anxiety can also make you tired because of repetitive negative thinking (RNT), which is a common symptom of anxiety. RNT involves continuous thoughts via rumination (dwelling on sad or dark thoughts focused on the past) and worry (angst regarding the future). Some researchers argue that having a longtime habit of RNT can harm the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories.[6] While the brain is busy using its energy stores to fuel negative thought patterns, the energy available for these other more productive endeavors is thereby reduced.

Negative thoughts can also disrupt or prevent healthy sleep patterns, keeping our minds racing at night and effectively wreaking havoc on daytime energy. (See #7)

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Reduce these patterns by reframing your feelings over anxious thoughts. Instead of staying stuck on “what if,” focus on what you can do in the here and now. What activity can you engage in for five minutes (or more) that brings you joy? What are you grateful for, no matter what’s going on around you?

4. Digestive Issues

It’s common for people to experience both intestinal and mental issues simultaneously. This suggests a strong connection between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is known as the gut-brain axis.[7] Simply put, what happens in our digestive tract (and as a result of what we eat) affects the brain and vice versa.

The gut microbiota is a complex population of GI tract microorganisms. When its balance is altered, the body can develop conditions that affect the gut-brain-endocrine relationship. The endocrine system produces and manages adrenaline, for starters. And the gut bacteria’s production of feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine—see #5) ties into this relationship as well.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors are also found in gut bacteria. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good by helping the body to unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. These are just a few of the manifestations that demonstrate how gut bacteria influences behavior. All of these contribute to feeling both physically and mentally tired.

You can minimize the symptoms of depression and anxiety by keeping your gut microbiota balanced with probiotic-rich fermented foods. Yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso soup, and tempeh are great foods to include in your diet.[8]

5. Depression

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Research continues to indicate a complex relationship between depression and decreased serotonin—a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Anxiety is also a direct symptom of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin helps with healthy sleep, mood, and digestion.

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Serotonin is produced in the gut, almost exclusively, at an estimated 90 percent. However, a small quantity is also produced in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is pivotal for transmitting energy balance signals. This small cone-shaped structure receives and relays signals transmitted via the vagus nerve from the gastrointestinal tract. It has a central role in mediating stress responses, regulating sleep, and establishing circadian rhythms. It senses and responds to a myriad of circulating hormones and nutrients, directly affecting our mood and energy.[9]

Dopamine is another mood-boosting neurochemical that is depleted in depression. It creates feelings of alertness and wakefulness and, when the body is operating normally, is released in higher amounts in the morning (allowing for daytime energy) and lower at night (preparing for healthy sleep). Stress is one factor that can deplete dopamine, thereby leading to depression, sleep disorders, and fatigue.

Studies show that dopamine levels in the brain can be elevated by increasing dietary intake of tyrosine and phenylalanine.[10] Both of these amino acids are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, peas, lentils, and beans.

6. Breathing Problems

Breathlessness and anxiety are closely linked, and this is one of the ways anxiety can make you feel tired. Anxiety can lead to shallow breathing, which can cause shortness of breath while feeling breathless can exacerbate anxiety.[11] It’s a vicious cycle that often leads people to take rapid and shallow breaths, breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.

This type of breathing minimizes oxygen intake and usability. Despite comprising only two percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply. Oxygen is fuel for both mental and physical tasks. When breathing patterns compromise healthy oxygen levels, this can cause considerable fatigue.[12]

End the anxiety-fatigue cycle with focused breathing exercises. It’s important to practice this regularly while you’re not experiencing anxiety or stress, as this will help you to be prepared should a moment of breathless anxiety hit unexpectedly.

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There are several different styles of breathing exercises. There’s an easy one to try, called “Resonant Breathing.” Simply breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this for a few minutes. It’s helpful to bring your awareness to any tension, deliberately relaxing your neck, shoulders, and jaw in particular.

7. Sleep Issues

Most of the elements we’ve already discussed inherently tie into sleep issues, which is often the reason why anxiety can make you feel tired. But it’s important to note that this is not always a directly linear cause-and-effect process. Much of it is cyclic. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we increase our risk of excessive cortisol production, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, depressed mood and mindset disorders, and dysregulation of appetite/craving hormones that affect our digestive health.

Sleep is obviously the number one antidote to feeling tired as a result of anxiety. But at the same time, many of these elements—including anxiety itself—lead to less-than-restorative sleep. We can improve our energy levels by addressing each element discussed here, as well as taking a proactive approach to our sleep health.

One simple habit to help recalibrate your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep patterns is to get outside in the morning. Sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day regulates melatonin production, helping us to feel sleepy at night.

You Don’t Have to Live Your Life Anxious and Exhausted

Times of extreme stress, like driving in heavy traffic or nerve-wracking situations like public speaking, can easily induce an anxiety response. Even “normal” everyday stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities, can build up to anxious feelings over time.

Our bodies’ response to stress and anxiety affects many of its functions in complex ways. When we unravel the interconnections of these processes, we can see how each part plays an intrinsic role in contributing to fatigue. By addressing each element individually, we can make simple lifestyle changes that resolve anxiety and diminish the ways it makes us tired as a result.

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More Tips on Coping With Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com

Reference

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