The physical symptoms of anxiety we don't talk about
Anxiety can affect us all in different ways, but there are some symptoms we don't tend to talk about. Sophie, 23, explains some of the ways anxiety and stress can affect our bodies, and why we need to normalise them.
It's no secret that the mind can have an effect on our bodies. When we get anxious we often sweat or blush; we might feel our body heat rise uncomfortably and our hearts hammer in our chests; and sometimes our voices might crack, squeak, or sound quieter than intended. We might also find that our eyes start to water, we start to tremble or shake, and we feel light-headed, to name just a few.
But there are some physical symptoms that aren't often discussed quite so honestly. For example, anxiety or stress can also affect our digestive systems and toilet habits. This can mean constipation, diarrhoea, or the nervous wee that we have to have ten times when we’re anxious. I once was so anxious about a job, I struggled to eat properly because it felt like my throat was restricting or closing up. It's a symptom I experienced a lot throughout my childhood - my anxiety would often make me gag on food when I tried to physically swallow – but it’s one I rarely hear mentioned.
These physical symptoms can be so frustrating and a huge discomfort. And when we don’t know how common they are, it can leave us feeling all alone.
I discussed common symptoms l was experiencing, like the blushing and sweating, with my therapist. I would often wear clothes of a neutral colour just in case I got nervous and started to sweat. My therapist suggested social "experiments" to help. These included slowly gaining a little more confidence in public, as I suffer from social anxiety and doing anything in public feels nerve-wracking. I was specifically nervous about being judged, and my social "experiments" included small things like sitting in the middle of a restaurant instead of hiding in a corner, and slowly wearing lighter-coloured clothing that would show up any sweat patches.
The idea was to make a note of how anxious I was on a scale of one to ten before the experiment, to try and complete my task, and then to go back afterwards and write on the scale how anxious I was during and after the test. The results usually indicated that my anxiety was high before, a little better during and lower after the completion of the experiment. The more I did these little tasks, the more I realised that my anxiety at the beginning was often triggered by what I worried would happen – but these worried never came true.
I am now much more comfortable wearing what I like in public without the feeling of being judged. The truth is everyone is so busy and wrapped up in their own lives that what you are wearing or any physical signs of anxiety and distress you are displaying are far more noticeable to you than to anyone else.
The physical effects that anxiety has on our bodies are very much as real as the effects it has on the way we feel and the thoughts we have. It is inevitable that these connections all come hand-in-hand and it can be unpleasant when we experience them. But discussing these physical symptoms more openly might help us tackle and normalise them when it comes to mental illness. Blushing, sweating, shaking, constipation, diarrhoea, the constant need to pee and the struggle to eat are all part of the package that we didn't sign up for – and that’s okay.
Author: Sophie, 23
Where to get help
It’s really common to struggle with anxiety at some point. We have lots of information and advice that can really help if you find that you're feeling worried more than usual.