health

The surprising symptoms of anxiety that no one talks about.

I’m laying in bed, terrified. All day I’ve felt as though I’ve just skipped a stair and am desperately trying to regain my composure, or I’ve forgotten something very important. Something in my gut just doesn’t feel right.

Has something happened to my mum? Did I make a big mistake at work today? Am I feeling guilty because I haven’t spoken to that friend I used to work with four years ago? Am I neglecting my dog because I only walked him for 20 minutes today? Was it rude that I didn’t say “bye” to my colleague? Am I not eating enough fruit and vegetables?

When most people think of anxiety, they imagine a pounding heart and sweaty palms. And indeed those physical sensations are very much features of panic. But the lived experience of anxiety is so much more than feeling worried or on edge.

People who live with anxiety suffer a whole host of unusual symptoms that we rarely talk about – and it’s time to lift the lid.

"The lived experience of anxiety is so much more than feeling worried or on edge." Image via HBO.

1. "I feel like I'm in a dream..."

Dreamlike feelings, or the sense that you are almost watching yourself from above, can be a symptom of severe anxiety. Anne Marie Albano,  an associate professor of medical psychology from Columbia University Medical Center, says that anxiety sufferers may feel as though their surrounding aren't real, or they're going through the motions without actually being present.

In psychology, this experience is referred to as "depersonalisation", where one feels as though their thoughts and feelings "do not belong to oneself". The reason for this is that the body is so anxious that it has generated a fight or flight response. As a survival mechanism, our brains are eliminating any "unnecessary stimuli" - hence why we feel disconnected from the world around us.

You can feel like you're stuck in a dream, or watching yourself from above. Image via Paramount.
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2. Rashes

Dr Albano says that there is a clear connection between our skin and our emotions, which is evident when nerves give way to blushing, or a red rash on the chest and neck. When our body feels stress (which is how it interprets anxiety) we produce extra cortisol which spreads through our bloodstream. Cortisol interferes with our body's defenses, which can produce skin irritations. Many people who struggle with conditions like eczema, find that their skin flares up when they are suffering from stress or anxiety.

Hey Mia: How do you manage your anxiety? Post continues below. 

3. Stomach pains

When I learnt that stomach pains were related to anxiety, so many things fell into place.

The vagus nerve is part of the nervous system, beginning at the brainstem and extending all the way down to the stomach. Simply put, it is the mode of communication between your brain and your gut. Having a "gut feeling" or suffering a "nervous stomach" are each the work of the vagus nerve.

Anxiety is thought to be the most common cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), where the gastrointestinal system is no longer able to correctly process food.

Apart from IBS, Albano explains "gas is created when the acid in your stomach is churning while nervousness runs throughout your body".

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4. The sense that you might be going crazy

A Reddit user describes anxiety as "like having a monster living inside your head". Anxiety can, quite simply, feel like you're going mad.

Dr Jim Folk says that many people feel plagued by thoughts they don't want, which are often disturbing and irrational. This gives way to a fear that they have no control over what they think and are 'losing it'.

The anxiety then perpetuates itself, because one ruminates about potentially "going mad" and ending up "in a psychiatric ward".

5. Feeling trapped

People who suffer from anxiety may describe feeling stuck or claustrophobic, as though they are trapped inside a mind that isn't theirs.

One Reddit user writes "It doubts you and everything about you. It keeps you prisoner. It laughs at you and tells you nobody thinks you’re interesting anyway so why bother saying what’s on your mind..." He continues "It’s like being in an abusive relationship with yourself."

Anxiety can feel like there is no way out.

6. Inability to focus

For many, anxiety interferes with their ability to concentrate even for short periods of time. When the body produces a stress response, brain functioning is impaired. Not only do sufferers feel distracted or restless, anxiety can also lead to problems with short-term memory.

Psychologists often refer to flight or fight, but there is a third response that anxiety sufferers are familiar with: freeze. When the body feels as though it's in danger, it can essentially shut down as a survival mechanism. One might find that their mind goes completely blank, or they clam up unable to speak.

7. Muscle pain (for example in the jaw)

One of the first things I noticed after medically addressing my anxiety, was a change in flexibility. All of a sudden I could touch my toes.

People with anxiety might experience neck or back pain as a result of muscle tension. Jaw discomfort is also reported, which is a byproduct of clenching one's teeth.

Other unusual symptoms include nausea, chest pain, insomnia, fatigue, hypochondria and ringing in the ear.

In any one year, over two million Australians will experience anxiety. Women are more likely than men to suffer from the condition, and one in three women will struggle with the illness at some point in their lives.

Anxiety is so much more than sweaty palms and a heavy chest. For some, it can be absolutely debilitating.

It might be an uncomfortable subject, but it's time to confront what anxiety really looks like.

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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