I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember, so I can tell you from personal experience that there are some incredibly weird things that are actually normal when you have anxiety. Anxiety can make the prospect of leaving your apartment seem genuinely terrifying, and it can make relaxing during sex (or anything else) seem like a superhuman feat. Anxiety can cause all kinds of weird thoughts and completely unwarranted feelings of guilt, too. Personally, there are times when my anxiety gets so out of control that I have thoughts I know aren’t actually true — like this one: “everyone hates you.” It might seem dramatic to someone who’s never struggled with mental illness, but for someone with anxiety, these kinds of thoughts aren’t at all uncommon.
On top of all that weirdness, anxiety is almost as physically exhausting as it is mentally taxing. On the days when my anxiety is significantly high, it’s not weird at all for me to suffer from chest pains, fatigue, and stomach problems. Even on “good days,” my anxiety usually results in near-constant jaw pain, because I unconsciously clench my jaw when I’m feeling nervous or stressed out. Since I’m way too familiar with the strange side-effects that accompany anxiety, I decided to get a professional’s input on the topic.
Here’s what Barrie Sueskind, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in helping clients overcome anxiety, has to say about all the weird things that are perfectly normal when you have anxiety.
Sensing Danger When There's No Real Threat
As an anxious person myself, I wish more people could understand that anxiety is so much more than worrying all the time. Worry is hard to deal with, too — but anxiety can be unreasonably terrifying. As Sueskind explains, "Anxiety often brings with it feelings of dread and irrational fears." Whereas worry can usually by linked to a specific event, (tax season, final exams, paying bills, etc.), anxiety is almost never rational.
What's worse is that people with anxiety experience both the mental and physical side effects of this near-constant fear response. As Sueskind puts is, "When people experience anxiety, their nervous systems perceive danger and flood with stress hormones preparing them for fight or flight." Unfortunately, the more your "fight-or-flight response" is triggered, the easier it is to trigger it — which means fear can become an anxious person's default setting. So not only is anxiety self-sustaining by nature, the fear it causes feels incredibly real and warranted.
Feeling Disconnected From Your Body
It's not uncommon for someone with anxiety to feel totally separate from their body, or out of touch with what's happening around them. These sensations are known as depersonalization and derealization, and Sueskind explains both of them perfectly: "Depersonalization is a feeling of detachment from one's body and derealization is the sense that the external world is not real, as if it is a movie playing in the background." I've experienced both of these symptoms in the past, and it's never been the fun kind of trippy.
Obsessing Over Worst-Case Scenarios
On particularly rough days, all the effort in the world won't keep an anxious person from spiraling into a Negativity Black Hole. Sueskind explains this common side effect of anxiety as "racing thoughts and obsessive worst-case-scenario thoughts, otherwise known as catastrophizing."
To someone with anxiety, catastrophizing comes naturally. When you suffer from an anxiety disorder, expecting the worst possible outcome of any given situation can become a defense mechanism of sorts. Anticipating the worst doesn't keep you safe or prepare you for the unpredictable, though. Actually, catastrophizing only increases anxiety, because most of life's disasters can't be predicted. As Sueskind puts it, "The crises we face in life are seldom the ones we anticipate, so preparing for the worst does little other than worsen your anxiety."
A Constant Ringing In Your Ears
Doctors can't tell us exactly why, but there's a direct link between tinnitus (a perceived ringing in the ears) and anxiety. Some experts theorize that anxious people suffer from tinnitus due to issues with blood flow or head pressure. It's also possible that people with anxiety experience ear-ringing simply because anxious folks tend to be hyper-sensitive to the slightest of physical ailments. As Sueskind tells Bustle, "People with anxiety tend to amplify minor physical issues that may be part of digestion, your menstrual cycle, or your body fighting a cold." Whatever the direct cause may be, the relationship with anxiety and tinnitus is indisputable.
Excessive Sweating & Other Unexplained Physical Symptoms
Anyone who struggles with anxiety knows that it affects so much more than your mental state. The mind and body are connected, so dealing with anxiety means dealing with its many physical side effects as well. The physical manifestations of anxiety can be vast, too. Muscle tension, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, trembling, chills, hot flashes, headache, chest pain, nausea, frequent urination or diarrhea, skin irritations, (like rashes and hives) and even exhaustion can accompany anxiety. What's even worse than all of that? According to Sueskind, "these symptoms can provoke even more stress, creating a self-perpetuating cycle." So basically, someone who's mentally ill is going to feel physically ill more often than not.
The only good news here is the fact that anxiety tends to amplify physical symptoms — so just because an anxious person feels seriously ill doesn't mean they need to rush to the hospital. That said, you should definitely check with your doctor about any health problems you might be having before you write them off as anxiety symptoms. As Sueskind says, "You do not want to dismiss physical symptoms as anxiety before checking with your doctor, but knowing they could simply stem from anxiety may help you remain calm until you get the all-clear."