Physical symptoms of anxiety can be frightening and upsetting – their overwhelming nature can rock your world within minutes, leaving you fearful and drained. Maybe you feel your heart wildly beating in your chest, experience chest pain that makes you think you’re having a panic attack, or have the overwhelming feeling you are going crazy. The sudden onslaught of symptoms can certainly be unnerving.
The good news is that you can learn to manage your physical symptoms of anxiety so they don’t take control of your life. However, there is no quick fix or magical pill – it takes effort, exposure, and trust in your body to challenge your fear-based thoughts and regain control of anxiety’s physical symptoms.
It is important to check with your health care provider to rule out a medical problem. If you do not have a medical problem, and your symptoms are related to anxiety, the following tips on managing its symptoms are for you.
1. Understand why humans have anxiety
Don’t forget that anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. It is a fight-or-flight response in our nervous system that is meant to help us react to threats in our environment, and can encompass a wide variety of symptoms and durations. Remember, anxiety is adaptive and is not trying to harm you – it’s trying to protect you from something.
2. Remember that the physical symptoms are not harmful
Often the immediate reaction to the physical symptoms of anxiety is to fear them and try and make them go away. However, if we fear them, it only reinforces that there is danger in our environment, which signals our nervous system to protect us more, thus creating more physical symptoms.
We need to do what may feel counter-intuitive and unnatural in order to befriend our anxiety. We need to calm our nervous system and remind ourselves that the symptoms are not harmful.
3. Learn the function of the symptoms and remind yourself when you are afraid
Say you are afraid that your heart is beating too hard and you imagine, in your mind’s eye, that it is going to explode. Now that’s a scary thought. Thinking this kind of danger is impending only reinforces your fear, which exacerbates your body’s physical reaction to anxiety.
Reminding yourself of your physical symptom’s purpose can help curb its effects. For example, if your heart is beating really fast, try telling yourself that it’s just a response in your sympathetic nervous system that is leading your heart to beat faster and stronger. It’s an important function for when you are preparing for an activity since it enables you to quickly transfer oxygen throughout your body. If you truly are in danger, it will help redirect blood flow from the places where blood is not currently needed to larger muscle groups in order to prepare the body for action.
Take time to research the specific functions of the physical symptoms you experience, and remind yourself of the information when you are feeling afraid.
4. Face your fears
When we feel something is dangerous, we naturally try to avoid it, which reinforces our belief that it is scary. For example, if we fear going to the shopping mall because we think we might start sweating, shaking, and feeling nauseated, then we decide to avoid shopping malls. This teaches us that the symptoms we experience are inevitable, and reinforces our fear.
After we re-learn the meaning of anxiety’s physical symptoms, we need to practice facing the situations that cause them. Remember to take small steps when doing so, starting with things that are somewhat scary, but not terrifying. As you learn to master your symptoms, you can gradually work your way up to things that used to be very frightening to you. Each time you face a fear successfully, remind yourself of how you and your body were able to work together to overcome it.
Only through repeated exposure to what we fear – as well as continuous learning – can we master the symptoms of our anxiety.
5. Get help if you need it
It can be hard work and scary to confront the physical symptoms of anxiety. If you want to do this, but are unsure where to start, try working with a therapist trained in panic, anxiety, or interoceptive exposure.
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Barlow, D. H., Craske, M. G., & Craske, M. G. (2000). Mastery of your anxiety and panic: MAP-3: Client workbook for anxiety and panic. New York: Oxford University Press.
Robichaud, M., & Dugas, M. J. (2016). The generalized anxiety disorder workbook: A comprehensive CBT guide for coping with uncertainty, worry, and fear. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.