This Is Why Anxiety Affects More Than Your Mental State

We all lie on a spectrum in terms of how much bodily awareness we have.

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Aug 17 2018, 4:41pm

Send a note to tonic@vice.com describing what makes you anxious and we'll see if we can't get you some sound advice.

When I get anxious about something, it doesn't just stay in my mind, it takes over my whole body. I don't think I have full-on panic attacks, but my hands and voice get shaky, I feel light headed, my chest feels heavy, and I'm overall really disoriented. The worst part is that sometimes it can take my body a full day before I don't feel jumpy and adrenaline-y anymore, even if the anxiety trigger is long gone. Is there a way to soothe that physical anxiety faster and why does it affect me for so long?

Sometimes I can feel my heart-rate speed up even before such an innocuous challenge as picking up the phone to order take-out. In contrast, some of my friends tell me that they don’t ever feel their own hearts beating. They look at me as if I’m strange when I talk about it. This difference in our awareness of our own internal bodily sensations is known as “interoceptive awareness”—and we all lie on a spectrum in terms of how much of it we have.

I’d speculate that you, like me, are high in interoceptive awareness—from your description, you sound very in tune with your bodily sensations.

A downside to being more sensitive to your physical sensations is that you are more likely to notice the ways that your body responds to anxiety. You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response— how we’ve evolved to respond to perceived threat by readying ourselves physiologically for urgent action, which involves such changes as increased heart-rate, adrenaline release, the shutting down of digestion, and extra blood being pumped to our muscles. In turn, these changes can lead to some of the sensations you describe like feeling shaky and light headed.

These physical effects of anxiety are a normal part of being human. Crucially, though, another characteristic that varies between people is how we think about and interpret these kind of physical fight-or-flight sensations.

Some people aren’t fussed, or might even enjoy them (think of thrill-seeking sky-divers and race car drivers) while others find them deeply unpleasant and alarming. In fact, it’s even possible to develop a fear of anxiety-related bodily sensations or what some psychologists call “anxiety sensitivity” (there’s debate among psychologists into whether this is a truly separate concept from basic anxiety, but it’s certainly seems a useful distinction that helps make sense of the different ways that people experience being anxious).

What’s particularly unpleasant about anxiety sensitivity is that it can lead to the kind of prolonged adrenaline-y feelings that you mentioned, as the physical sensations of anxiety trigger yet more anxiety, locking you into a vicious circle of jitteriness.


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I should note that there are also physical illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism, that can lead to prolonged physical sensations of nervousness, so you might want to speak to your physician to have such possibilities ruled out. Anxiety sensitivity is also major risk factor for panic disorder—you say you don’t think you have this, but if your problems worsen, or you feel you can’t cope, you should seek the advice of a mental health professional.

Assuming anxiety sensitivity is what’s going on for you, one obvious part of the solution would be to try to avoid getting anxious so often in the first place—of course, that’s easier said than done (but one simple lifestyle tip is to avoid too much caffeine).

If we accept that at least some anxiety is a part of life, but that your specific problem is with the unpleasantness and persistence of the sensations that follow, another way to find relief is to practice experiencing those same or similar physical sensations, but in a safer, happier context.

Exercise is the most obvious example. Any kind of aerobic exercise that gets your heart racing and your blood pumping will expose you to feelings that are similar to what you experience when you’re anxious, but without the anxiety. And if you engage in moderate to vigorous exercise often enough, hopefully you will soon become extremely familiar with the feeling of those physical sensations subsiding and fading away, all by themselves, as you get your breath back. Hopefully this will help you feel less troubled the next time anxiety triggers similar sensations—there’s certainly evidence to suggest it might.

Another approach is to learn effective relaxation strategies to help return your body to a calmer state after you get anxious. From mindfulness-based meditation to visualization and simple deep-breathing exercises, there are many relaxation techniques available and your best bet might be to try out different ones to find the approach that works best for you.

Yet another avenue could be to seek out cognitive behavioral therapy to directly address the ways that you interpret and think about the physical sensations associated with anxiety. For some people simply learning more about the physiology of adrenaline and nervousness can help alleviate some of their negative experiences around physical symptoms. It’s worth remembering, too, that anxiety isn’t always your enemy. If you can learn to keep it in check (and live with the accompanying physical sensations), it can help you make better decisions and give you the edge in important situations—from job interviews to getting the order right the next time you order take-out.

Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster.

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