To read more about what anxiety is and the role it might be playing in your life, please see Part I, an Introduction to Anxiety and Part II, Anxiety Disorders in this series. Also, make sure you check back in on our essential oil blog regularly!
The first step to dealing with anxiety is recognizing the signs. Many people are aware of their symptoms, but don’t realize the cause and may instead assume they are just “weird” or that something is “wrong” with them. Below are listed some of the most common signs of anxiety and panic attacks, respectively.
One common marker of anxiety is having constant worries every day about small or large things. If you have a general anxiety disorder, your worries likely come from multiple areas of your life (i.e. your fears aren’t just restricted to social situations or a specific phobia).
Changes in the way we breathe are another common anxiety symptom. These include:
- Feeling out of breath with no physical activity
- Feeling like you can’t get a deep breath (shallow breathing)
- Feeling smothered or like it’s difficult to breathe
When we perceive a threat, our survival instincts kick in, causing a surge of adrenaline. This hormone can speed up breathing, which may result in the respiratory changes above. Anxiety may also cause you to become hyper-aware of your breathing, which can then cause you so perceive even more changes, and so on.
If you become overheated, you may sweat excessively from your underarms, hands, feet or face. Your body tries to get rid of water through the skin (rather than the kidneys) so that you don’t have to stop to relieve yourself while you are fighting or fleeing from the perceived threat.
Tingling or Numbness
Tingling or numbness can be caused by hyperventilation. Another possibility is that your blood begins to flow to your major muscle groups and away from your hands and feet, leading to different sensations. If your body hair stands up when you encounter a threat, that may also cause tingling.
Dilated Pupils, Bright Vision or Blurry Vision
When your body senses a “threat” (real or imagined), you need the best vision possible to either fight or flee. To increase your vision, your pupils dilate to let in more light. If you experience blurry vision, it may be caused by the extra light that is now being absorbed, or by focusing on one point to shut out the periphery.
Heavy or “Jelly” Legs
If your legs begin to feel like jelly when you get nervous or anxious, it could be due to various phenomena. Usually, it is because your blood is leaving peripheral areas of the body and going to the places you need it most, such as your heart or your brain. Another possibility is that your body is so tired from being tense that your leg muscles become weak.
When your body goes into fight or flight mode, your digestion is suppressed so that more resources can be devoted to the “threat.” As a result, you may experience symptoms like stomach aches or cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
Dizziness or Light-Headedness
When your body senses a threat, you start breathing faster to move more oxygen towards your muscle groups to prepare for fight or flight. This rush of oxygen, if not being used by the muscles, may lead you to feel dizzy or lightheaded.
Shaking or Body Tremors
When you go into fight or flight mode, a surge of adrenaline rushes through your body. Since adrenaline is energy, your body may begin to shake. If your body is tense, the strain on your muscles may also lead to tremors.
Feeling as though you have butterflies in your stomach is one of the most common symptoms of anxiety. People who don’t have an anxiety disorder but who experience nerve-racking situations – such as a job interview – can still feel a “fluttery” feeling in their stomach. The origin of this feeling is also rooted in the fight-or-flight response: your whole body tenses up to prepare for dealing with danger, and this includes the muscles in your stomach. The heightened sensitivity of your stomach lining is one explanation for the fluttery sensation.
Many people have nervous habits, but when the habit is self-destructive, it could be a sign of anxiety. Examples include:
- Excessive nail biting (onychophagia)
- Impulsive need to pull out your hair (trichotillomania)
- Picking your skin (dermatillomania)
- Excessive grinding of teeth (bruxism). About 70% of bruxism occurs because of stress or anxiety, according to the Bruxism Association
Alcohol or Substance Abuse
To unwind after an anxious day, some people turn to alcohol. According to the ADAA, 20% of people suffering from social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol dependency or abuse. On the other hand, anxiety may also be caused by long-term excessive drinking, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).1 Anxiety sufferers may also attempt to escape reality by turning to other drugs and substances.
In an attempt to numb intense feelings of anxiety and create positive feelings, a person may overeat. Studies have shown that people who suffer from Binge Eating Disorder are more likely to experience anxiety symptoms.2
Panic Attack Symptoms
When anxiety becomes extreme, a person may suffer from a panic attack – a sudden feeling of disabling terror.
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If someone has never had a panic attack before, they may assume they’re going crazy or that something is physically wrong with their body when, in fact, their symptoms are just a manifestation of their anxiety.
Since nothing is physically wrong with your body, others may not be able to tell what you’re going through unless you have visible signs, such as hyperventilation. Although it may feel like you’re dying, it’s important to remember that panic attacks can’t really hurt you.
Sufferers of panic attacks can have a combination of different symptoms. If you have experienced episodes of anxiety before and notice some of the symptoms below during a particularly stressful period of time, you may be having a panic attack.
Chest Pain or Tightness
Your body tenses up when it kicks into survival mode, and this could result in chest pain when you take a deep breath. This symptom may be confused with the chest pain a person has when they are having a heart attack. So, how can you tell the difference? Some people say that when you’re having chest pain from a panic attack, you can hear your heart beating in your ears, which doesn’t usually happen if someone is having a heart attack. If you’re unsure, seek medical attention immediately.
Hot or Cold Flashes
To prepare your body to fight or flee from the perceived threat, your blood vessels become tense when they transfer blood to the areas needed most. This causes your body temperature to increase and you may experience a sudden surge of heat or a “hot flash.” When your body sweats after it heats up, the air hits it and you feel cooler – sometimes drastically cooler, known as a “cold flash.” Sometimes an anxiety sufferer also experiences hot and cold flashes while they’re sleeping and not in panic attack mode. These are called night sweats.
A rapid heart rate is one of the most common symptoms of a panic attack. Some people mistake this for a sign that they’re having heart problems. To tell the difference, ask yourself a few questions:
- Do I feel an extreme sense of panic?
- Do I feel like I’m not in reality?
- Do I feel like I’m going crazy?
If your answers are yes, your palpitations are likely caused by a panic attack. People suffering from heart problems usually don’t react overly emotionally to their symptoms. However, since heart problems can be life-threatening, if you’re ever in doubt, seek medical attention.
While a sufferer is having a panic attack, they may have an intense fear that something terrible is about to happen. Sometimes they can name their fear while other times it’s just a general sense of doom. The physical symptoms may lead the person to think that the “terrible event” will be their own passing out our dying.
Hyperventilation is another common symptom and occurs during 60% of panic attacks. When you go into fight or flight mode during a panic attack, your breathing may become shallow. The reason this happens is that you’re breathing out too much carbon dioxide compared to the rate at which your body can make it. If this pattern lasts, you will begin to hyperventilate (over-breathe). This is why many doctors recommend taking slow, deep breaths during times of distress.
In periods of extreme anxiety, such as a panic attack, people may feel that they’re not living in reality and are instead in a dream-like state. Although they can’t accurately describe the feeling, they feel as though something is off and may become confused.
In some cases, people feel like they’re watching themselves outside of their body (called “depersonalization”). Others may stop processing information and feel like they’re operating on autopilot instead. This state is called derealization.
Interestingly, derealization is a defense mechanism likely used to protect your brain from harm during periods of intense stress. Your body may also send you into this state to protect you from further anxiety symptoms. However, when it becomes a chronic condition, a person may be diagnosed with depersonalization or derealization disorder.3
Anxiety is difficult to define because the symptoms can vary so greatly from person to person. Below are some of the more common symptoms for your reference. Remember that having one of the symptoms below doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder. If a combination of these sounds familiar to you and you have noticed them happening on a regular basis, please speak to your doctor about the possibility that you may have ongoing anxiety and ask about treatment options.