Anxiety grips a number of people each day. In the United Kingdom, approximately 1 in 6 people will experience some form of common mental health problem, including anxiety, every single week. This means that, with a rough guideline of 68,231,235 people living in the UK today, 11,371,873 people might suffer with anxiety in the coming 7 days. Even so, some people still ask ‘what does anxiety feel like?’ due to no experience of their own.
Of course, these numbers can vary, and other factors can also play a role in the emotional wellbeing of individuals. Some factors can include:
- Previous history of mental health problems
- The end of a relationship
- Hormonal changes, such as the menstrual cycle
- Extra stress at work or home
- Financial problems
- Poor sleep
- Poor physical health
However, sometimes anxiety is not always logical. There may be no given reason for it to appear, or it could be based around your own insecurities. Something as simple as a bad dream, or even the tone of voice or words used by another individual can cause anxiety to spike.
While it can be easy for those around the individual to tell them it’s in their head (it’s mental health so… duh?), or that their concerns are unfounded, this may not be as helpful as it is intended. In fact, downplaying a person’s feelings may instead make them feel like they can no longer voice their worries to you, thus isolating them further.
Based upon my own experience with anxiety, I wanted to share what anxiety attacks, or extreme worries in general, may feel like, including both the physical and emotional factors that may come into play.
One of the biggest signs of anxiety that I struggle with is the regulation of my temperature. When anxiety starts to take hold, a person may feel like they are burning up. Even if they physically aren’t warm, they may feel like they are overheating. Others may also find that, following a bout of anxiety, they feel shivery and cold. This can be caused by the nervous system giving you a physical response and increasing the sweat production due to the stress that you are feeling.
Some people also find that their digestive system also works against them when anxiety is present. For some, this can involve uncomfortable feelings of nausea, that can also result in vomiting. An upset stomach can also be a common symptom, especially if you already have gastro-intestinal issues. As someone who has struggled with IBS for many years, I have often found that anxiety and stress exacerbates these issues, leading to a vicious cycle of anxiety causing more issues, which in turn increases my anxiety.
At times, an individual struggling with anxiety may also feel displaced. Depersonalisation is a common aspect of issues such as BPD already, but can occur more when that individual is feeling anxious. This makes the person feel like the situations around them are not real, or are distorted from normality. They may even feel like they are not real either.
Feeling light-headed, or even like everything is spinning, can also be a common trait associated with anxiety. This can make the other symptoms feel that much worse. Due to a lack of stability, it can be a good idea to make sure you are sat in a safe place when experiencing anxiety, even if this means stopping what you are currently doing. Taking a few moments to yourself can be especially important when out and about, as this can increase your overall risk factor. It is important not to drive until these symptoms have passed.
A person who is struggling with anxiety may find that they hyperventilate, or even struggle to breathe. While there may be nothing blocking the airways, this can be a physical effect of too much stress on the body. Due to the low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood from hyperventilation, this can attribute to some of the other physical factors, such as the aforementioned dizziness.
Change in heartbeat
Some people find that, during an anxiety attack, their heartbeat increases, or even palpitates. Once again, this is due to the body responding to the stress the person is feeling.
Anxiety isn’t just a state of mind. As you have probably gathered by now, it can wreak havoc on both the body and mind. Due to this, a person may find themselves feeling absolutely drained following a bout of anxiety. Unfortunately, anxiety can also have a great effect on a person’s ability to sleep.
Changes in physical feeling
Both pins and needles in the limbs, or even head, and shaking can also occur during anxiety. These can greatly add to the discomfort that the person feels, as well as their ability to attempt to push through their worries.
Anxiety can greatly effect the other emotions a person feels. Alongside their worries, an individual struggling with anxiety may feel angry about their situation, or even be tearful due to their worries. While you may not understand their anxiety, or even think that their worry is that big of a deal, it is vital that you acknowledge these emotions, and validate them.
Again, this is an area I have a fair bit of experience in. Sometimes, the anxious thoughts and worries can get on top of the person. They may feel like they are inferior, not good enough, or simply bad. This can lead to thoughts of self harm, as well as the act itself. For some, self harm may be a means of grounding themselves, seeking relief, or even taking back control. It is important to not that self harm is a toxic coping mechanism, and other means should be found. This might take years. Berating a person for a self harm relapse, or even making comments such as ‘You were doing so well’ may increase the level of guilt they feel following the event, and even potentially lead to a vicious cycle of harming due to the guilt of harming occurring.
Validation is absolutely crucial. Yes, it is possible that their worries are completely unfounded, but that does not mean that the feelings aren’t real. There are a few ways you can try to aid a person who is in an anxious state.
Acknowledge the emotions
Regardless of your own thoughts on the anxiety the person is feeling, it is important that you take the time to understand what emotions the individual is feeling. Not only will this help you to understand the situation a little bit better, but it may also help the person to feel like they are being heard.
Make your presence known
At times, simply being there can be enough to help a person through their feelings of anxiety. Letting the individual know that you are there for them, whether they want you to simply listen, or offer advice, can mean a lot. Something as basic as sitting with them while they try to regulate their breathing can make them feel that much more secure.
When a person is struggling, it can be helpful for you to try and divert their mind elsewhere. Talk to them. A person who is suffering with anxiety is usually still capable of hearing and communicating on some level. Tell them about something you did together, helping them to visualise the occurrence, so that they can try and get out of that headspace.
Watch your words
People use many phrases to try and make others feel better, but these can actually negate a person. Avoid phrases such as ‘it’s not a big deal’ or even my personal peeve of ‘others have it worse’. While you shouldn’t need to walk on eggshells for the sake of your own mental wellbeing, some phrases can make a person feel like they cannot trust you with their issues, or even like you do not care.
Anxiety can lead to a person feeling rather dehydrated. This might be due to experiencing dry mouth, or even due to prior vomiting. Offering water, as opposed to caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, can greatly help their physical state. In addition to this, as strange as it sounds, the cold of the liquid might also go a long way towards grounding them.
While you may be able to help the person on your own, there are times where it may be appropriate to seek external help. In particular, this would be when self harm, or even suicidal thoughts, are present. Speaking as someone who has been in that situation, it is always far better to seek help, even if this goes against the wishes of the individual, than to remain quiet. Medical professionals will be far better equipped to aid the person in avoiding these temptations, and help preserve their life.
Remember that anxiety will affect each person differently. People may have varying levels of symptoms, and there is no one-size-fits-all for both the anxiety attack itself, as well as the means of coping. Educating yourself about the experience, as well as the best ways to support a person, not only means you will be better equipped for aiding others, but could also greatly help should you experience anxiety yourself.
As always, if you are struggling with anxiety, or mental health in general, please have a look at our HELP page for a list of useful contacts.