What exactly is anxiety? Is it our racing thoughts? Is it the way our heart pounds and the butterflies in our stomach? Actually it’s a whole range of different things and being able to separate them can help to give us a sense of control over how we are feeling.
Anxiety symptoms fall into five categories: physical symptoms, anxious thoughts, behavioural symptoms, emotional symptoms and interpersonal symptoms:
These include numbness and tingling, dizziness or nausea, chest pain, headaches, tension in body especially neck, shoulders and jaw, stomach upset, butterflies in stomach, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, weakness in legs, inability to sit still or relax, sleep problems, not able to eat.
When we are anxious we tend to over-monitor our physical sensations. We can worry that our physical symptoms of anxiety are signs of serious illness. Anxiety symptoms are part of our evolved fight/flight/freeze response. An animal threatened by a predator needs to have an increased heart rate for running away for a safe place or for fighting for its life. It needs a blood flow increase to its large muscles and less blood flow to its extremities so that it is less likely to bleed heavily if it loses part of a limb in a fight. Just like our animal ancestors, we feel our hearts thumping and we can get tingling or numbness in our hands and feet. Our goose bumps are related to making the hair stand on end which makes animals look larger and scarier, and thereby discourages predators. (Think of a pet cat with its fur standing on end when another cat invades its territory!)
Thoughts (Worry and overthinking)
When we are anxious we tend to overestimate the likelihood of negative things happening and to underestimate our ability to cope if something negative did happen. For example, we underestimate our ability to cope if a relationship ends or if we lose our job. Not surprisingly then anxiety often causes us to lose confidence in ourselves. Our thinking becomes more all-or-nothing, black and white, “can’t see the wood for the trees”. The same thoughts go round and round in our heads (it’s known as “rumination” or sometimes we call it “overthinking”). We can worry that our anxiety will be obvious to others or that people will judge us as boring, stupid, or unattractive.
Avoidance is the number one behavioural symptom of anxiety. We avoid situations and actions we fear will trigger anxiety or where we’ll be unable to escape. Some of us overcompensate for anxiety by working extra hard which can lead to workaholism. Some types of anxiety involve both over-checking and under-checking. For example, someone with an eating disorder who is anxious about their weight might sometimes weigh themselves very frequently or sometimes avoid weighing themselves, or check their appearance in mirrors a lot or totally avoid catching sight of their reflection in a mirror or glass.
All kinds of emotions can be mixed into the experience of anxiety including anger, irritability, sadness and hopelessness.
Interpersonal Anxiety Symptoms
We may need more reassurance especially from those close to us. We might fear becoming dependent or incompetent and this has relationship implications. We might snap at partners or other family due to anxiety-induced irritability. Some people might avoid sex because the physical sensations such as increased heart rate and body temperature, feel too similar to symptoms of anxiety. Some of us develop what is known as “social anxiety” where we feel high levels of stress in situations where we are with other people. This can range in severity from just occasionally feeling uncomfortable, for example if we are in a large group with people we don’t know well to feeling constantly hyper-aroused in the company of others, even those we know well and who accept us as we are. Some people find themselves unable to leave their homes – avoidance at its most extreme.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with anxiety or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.