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The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Thought your anxiety was all your head?
A few years ago, I went on a ski holiday with my dad. Our ‘chocolate box room’ (aptly named as they were so incredibly small), meant that we were sleeping in close proximity and unlike my partner. My dad isn’t a heavy sleeper.
So, when he turned to me the next morning and asked if I was aware that I was grinding my teeth in my sleep, I was surprised. My anxiety, in my mind, resided exclusively in my head.
A month later, I was the proud owner of a mouthguard and, for the first time, I’d seen that there were physical symptoms to my anxiety. Though, Clinical Lead, Holly Beedon explained that it’s not uncommon to wake up with an aching jaw among other things.
With over ten years’ experience in mental health, Holly explains that it’s a lot more common than I thought.
“Our physical symptoms are simply our bodies response to adrenaline and they manifest in a number of ways – from a churning stomach to a fluttering heart, we can all experience different things.” She lists a few other examples:
- Heart racing
- Clammy hands
- Feeling hot and sweaty
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling hands and feet
- Muscle pain
“Another response is a relaxed bladder. Which results in you needing the loo constantly, you might find that once you get there – you don’t actually need the toilet. As well as muscle tension, which is most common in our neck and back.”
She also mentions teeth grinding “it’s actually experienced by a lot of people. You see, your unconscious brain spends the night processing your experiences throughout the day. Which is why, when you’re especially anxious, you can experience these very vivid and unusual dreams. Teeth grinding is another sign that your muscles aren’t relaxed.
So, what can we do?
I highlighted the strange and circular nature of anxiety. Explaining that when a lot of us find out minds racing as soon as we hit the hay, which results in broken sleep, leaving us more drained than ever. “The first step to addressing your anxiety is acknowledging a pattern. And you’ve just spotted one right there. If you find that your mind starts racing at night then you can start by trying progressive muscle relaxation. Or, mindfulness/ breathing techniques”
Holly also suggests that creating a space and time to acknowledge our worries, no matter how ridiculous they seem is important. “Set yourself a ‘worry time’, for example ‘at 5 pm, I’ll write down everything I’m worried about and give myself some time to think about them. And, if you catch yourself worrying outside of this window, simply remind yourself that you can think about that during ‘worry time’.”
Giving yourself a set timeframe to process your worries sounds a bit odd. But, for me, I saw the effects pretty quickly.
Holly also explains that if you tend to find that you’re worrying more in the day than the evening, or your physical symptoms are feeling overwhelming, you should try grounding techniques. “Focus on what you can feel, smell, taste, hear and see. It helps distract you from your feelings and refocus.”
She also recommends trying a worry tree.
“A lot of our worries are hypothetical, they’re future-focussed things that haven’t actually happened and a worry tree can help us acknowledge this.” Readers who have experienced CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) will be familiar with a model such as this one to help us work out if we’re overthinking.
So can counselling or therapy make a difference to those that experience anxiety?
“Definitely. Evidence wise, CBT is the most effective form of therapy for anxiety. There are lots of different models, but it can be a huge benefit to those that need a little bit of extra support.”