Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental health disorders present across the lifetime. The ability to think ahead and future plan is a critical component of what make us human. However, this becomes problematic when this becomes out of control, leads to overthinking about hypothetical “what if” scenarios” and begins to negatively impact our mood, our relationships and our work.
While anxiety is commonly associated with emotional distress, its impact is not limited to the mind. In fact, many people are completely unaware of their “mental” anxiety and are primarily aware of physical symptoms of anxiety including hand sweating, stomach upset, muscle tension, headaches, fainting spells, neck discomfort, teeth grinding etc..
Physical symptoms often accompany anxiety, manifesting in ways that may go unnoticed or be mistakenly attributed to other causes. Understanding and recognizing these physical manifestations is crucial to reduce further uncertainty and to implement effective treatments and support.
The Body’s Alarm System
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, triggering the “fight or flight” mechanism. When faced with a perceived threat, the body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, preparing it to confront or escape danger. Our body really only has one response to stress regardless of whether it is “mental” stress or “physical” stress. In the case of chronic anxiety, however, this system can become overactive, leading to a range of physical symptoms that vary from person to person.
Here are two examples that highlight the direct but surprising connection between anxiety and physical symptoms.
1. Phobias and vasovagal reactions (eg. seeing needles and fainting)
The vasovagal reaction is a fascinating physiological response that often manifests in the face of specific phobias, creating a unique interplay between the mind and body. This intricate dance involves the vagus nerve, a key player in regulating heart rate and blood pressure.
When confronted with a specific phobia, such as the fear of needles or the sight of blood, the brain perceives a threat and triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. However, for some individuals, the vasovagal reaction takes an unexpected turn, leading to a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure.
The vagus nerve, responsible for calming the body after the fight-or-flight response, becomes overly stimulated in a vasovagal reaction. This stimulation prompts the heart rate to slow down and dilates blood vessels, causing a sudden drop in blood pressure. The result is a temporary loss of consciousness, known as fainting.
For these individuals, they can also experience vasovagal symptoms in the face of other distress which can be alarming because it is not clearly tied to needles or the sight of blood. Helping to connect the individual’s anxiety with the physicial symptoms they are experiencing helps reduce uncertainty and improve treatment outcomes.
2. Childhood anxiety and nausea/vomiting
Most people can relate to the feeling of “butterflies” on the first day of school or a child who suddenly feels nauseous or unwell before getting on the school bus. The gut-brain connection has been well established over the years. These 2 regions are directly connected by neuropathways which are in part mediated by serotonin. Although the connection can be easy to observe in childhood because of the connection to life events, this is not necessarily the case in adults. In particular, individuals tend to forget that chronic anxiety or acute anxiety can significantly impact their gastrointestinal tract and lead to constipation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Recognizing the physical symptoms of anxiety is crucial for both individuals experiencing anxiety and those around them. In particular, individuals who experience physical anxiety as a child are likely to experience physical anxiety as an adult. The mind-body connection is powerful, and raising awareness of this connection is an integral part of comprehensive anxiety management since it reduces uncertainty and unnecessary investigations. Seeking support from mental health professionals, adopting stress-reducing strategies, and incorporating lifestyle changes can contribute to a holistic approach to managing anxiety and promoting overall well-being.