Anxiety is often assumed to be palpitations, dry mouth and shortness of breath. But your anxiety may not look like this. It can also be experienced in a range of other ways that may not look like the anxiety we know from the movies or scaremongering 6.30pm TV shows.
Anxiety affects us in three ways. The first is physically in the superficial muscles of our body including the chest muscles, arms and legs, neck, shoulders and back, and of course head. When adrenaline floods the system in response to perceptions of threat, these large superficial muscles contract in readiness for action. If we live with chronic anxiety it can cause us to develop lower back problems, neck, jaw, teeth and head aches, and sometimes migraines associated with stress. Many people presenting to physiotherapy practices have anxiety induced physical pain.
The chest pain we experience can often cause us to think we are having a heart attack. It is extremely important that you check this out with your GP or specialist so you eliminate this possibility. If after you have explored this and there is no medical explanation it may be worth considering if you have strong chest pain because of stress.
A common problem when anxiety affects people in this way is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). It is by no means the only reason but it can make us extremely tired and lethargic. Effectively we become too tired to function and the anxiety causes us to withdraw and in some cases curl up on the couch. Rest becomes a priority and in time the symptoms can become the main aspect we build our life around
The second way anxiety can show itself in our bodies is in our smooth muscles of our gastrointestinal tract. . These are the intestinal muscles that move food down and around our oesophagus stomach and bowel. Have you noticed that when you get nervous you can sometimes hear your stomach gurgling, or even feel nauseous? Some people do vomit and have trouble keeping food down when they are very anxious.
In the stomach and oesophagus the anxiety causes the release of stomach acid which in large quantities can pass up into the oesophagus causing a burning commonly known as ‘heartburn’, which is very painful.
A common bowel problem that is affected by anxiety is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Stress makes the symptoms worse and can compound the physical difficulties by making people uncomfortable about socializing where they may not be close enough to a toilet. Often there has never been any toilet accident in the past but the fear of it is enough to make people avoid social situations altogether.
Other bowel issues include pain and discomfort, gas, diarhoea and constipation.
The third way anxiety can cause us discomfort is not as obvious as the first two ways. It is known as Cognitive Perceptual Disturbance (CPD).
This type of anxiety can affect your memory, thinking and perception. Memory problems are fairly common at all ages, not just as you get older.
Stress causes some of us to forget, to have difficulty concentrating, and in some extreme cases to simply blank out. Some clients have moments of not being able to remember where they are or to have forgotten what we spent the session talking about if stress was too high for them during the session. Some people will report being dizzy and unable to stand without assistance when highly stressed.
Thinking can also be affected. Some will report having ‘cloudy’, confused thinking. Others will report being unable to concentrate on the voice of a person who is making them anxious.
Disturbances of perception can also occur when anxiety becomes very high. This can take the form of visual blurring, or visual snow. Hearing can be impaired for brief periods making the person unable to hear clearly. Tinnitus is also made worse by stress.
So you can see that stress can affect us in many different ways. Psychotherapy is designed to assist you to recognise the signs of anxiety/stress for what they are. Too many times we hear of people attending Emergency Rooms (ER) with chest pain or crippling stomach pain only to find they have no physical reason for the experience. Canadian figures suggest 50% of presentations to ER with gastrointestinal pain are due to anxiety/stress. This is a high cost to the person and to the medical and hospital system.
Psychotherapy can help!
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