What Causes Anxiety Symptoms: Why Do These Physical Responses Occur?

What causes anxiety symptoms? You might be wondering “why do I have those physical responses that cause the symptoms of anxiety?” Find out more about the causes of the physical responses that are associated with anxiety symptoms.

Hyperventilation is common when we are anxious. Taking rapid, shallow breaths can actually increase the blood oxygen level too much. This causes anxiety symptoms such as numbness in the hands, feet, face, and sometimes arms and legs or other areas as well. This also causes anxiety symptoms of lightheadedness, dizziness, and problems with vision.

Diversion of blood flow
Another cause of numbness is the diversion of blood flow. During fight-or-flight, blood is directed to the large muscles so they are ready for action. In turn, the extremities receive less blood. This can also cause the hands and feet to feel cold.

Instinctive (primitive brain) survival mode
Instinctive changes in thinking occur for survival.

Imagine stepping up to the starting line to compete in a race at the Olympics. Would you be thinking about what to say to your boss about an issue at work? Would you be committing to memory the name and favorite color of the athlete beside you?

Why not? Because you would need to be totally focused on the task at hand in order to perform your best in the race. Survival mode during anxiety is no different.

In a life-and-death situation (which is what your body is perceiving when you’re anxious) your body makes sure your mind is in survival mode to allow optimal physical performance.

When in survival mode, it is imperative to focus only on keeping the body safe. The higher cognitive (thinking) functions are, in effect, shut off to allow the primitive survival mode to keep us alive. Functions such as learning, memory, complex decision-making, attention and concentration are impaired. When attention is not paid to details, these ideas are not encoded into the brain, and are not committed to memory, leading to what we perceive as memory problems (when in fact, they are attention problems due to the brain’s anxiety response). Survival mode frequently causes anxiety symptoms.

Dissociation is the mental act of separating oneself from what is going on. All of us dissociate, to a degree, every day. Going through routine activities (such as driving, brushing teeth, etc) without thinking about them is a form of dissociation – being on “auto-pilot.” This is also a natural protective response when we are in survival mode – going on survival auto-pilot. Dissociation is also a way to protect the mind from the effects of overwhelming stress. Dissociation can lead to feelings of being disconnected (emotional detachment or emotional numbness) and can cause memory and concentration problems.

Stress Hormones
Cortisol and epinephrine, along with other hormones, are produced by the sympathetic nervous system to increase heart rate and enact other physiological changes that allow the body to fight or flee. Stress hormones cause a variety of body changes that we perceive as symptoms of anxiety. See more details on the physiology of the fight-or-flight response.

Changes in metabolism, decreased insulin production, shut down digestion
You’re fighting or fleeing – not digesting food! The body needs energy NOW to defend itself, so the liver breaks down glycogen into glucose for quick energy. Fat is broken down to make glucose, so the fat concentration in the blood increases. Blood flow is diverted to the muscles and away from the organs. Digestion ceases so all of the body’s resources can be devoted to survival. Many symptoms of anxiety arise because of these changes. See more details about changes in metabolism and digestion.

Muscle tension
Muscles become tight because they are tensed and ready for action. Muscle tension is one of the primary causes anxiety symptoms involving muscle cramping and pain.

Racing Heart
This occurs to provide blood flow to transport oxygen to the muscles. Large quantities of oxygen are needed to allow extreme physical exertion to occur. A racing heart, when experienced as one of the symptoms of anxiety, is natural and normal. In itself, a racing heart is not dangerous and will not increase the likelihood of a heart attack. A racing heart commonly causes anxiety symptoms.

Rapid breathing
An instinctive response to increase the oxygen level in preparation for intense physical activity. Sprinting, fighting, and other life-saving actions are anaerobic (metabolism occurs in the absence of oxygen). Increased oxygen levels in the blood allow for aerobic exercise (longer distance running, for example) and also help with recovery after aerobic exercise. Rapid breathing can lead to a variety of symptoms; it causes anxiety symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, and tingling or numbness in the face and extremities.

An emotional response that is your body’s way of keeping you safe. When we are afraid, we will more likely take action to defend ourselves. Fear not only a natural body response to perceived danger, it is also one of the major symptoms of anxiety. Fear also causes anxiety symptoms.

Increased blood pressure
To quickly provide more blood and oxygen to the muscles, blood pressure increases. Symptoms of anxiety such as headaches can occur as a result of raised blood pressure.

Dilated pupils
To allow you to see and respond to danger quickly. Vision changes (blurred vision, for example) are symptoms of anxiety associated with this response.

Muscle fatigue from tension
Not a protective response, but an inevitable one, even after fairly short periods of muscle tension. Symptoms of anxiety arise (tension, pain, muscle fatigue, trembling) because of this muscle tension.

Cooling the body in preparation for exertion
Allows the body to perform physically without overheating.

Clenched jaw
Part of the protective muscle tension (instinctive preparation to bite in self defense, perhaps?). Leads to headaches, face pain, jaw pain, tooth aches, and other symptoms of anxiety.

Irritation of digestive tract
Not a protective function, but a negative side-effect of the production of stress hormones. Leads to nausea, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite, and other symptoms.

Immune system suppression
A protective mechanism to focus the body’s resources on immediate survival. Also a negative side-effect of stress hormone production. Can lead to increased illness.

Continue to…

Page 1 – Symptoms of Anxiety do Have Physical Causes
Page 2 – Why Do These Physical Responses Occur?

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