The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

My Story

I was 13 years old when I started suffering with anxiety, although I didn’t know what it was at the time. I remember lying in bed at night, I shared a room with my sisters, and I would suddenly feel that I couldn’t breathe properly. I would say to my sister “I’ve got that breathing thing again”. This would make me panic and send me into a panic attack where I experienced shaking, sweating, and a racing heart. I had no idea what was happening and I thought I was going to die.

Many years later I was told that a panic attack can’t kill you and this was a massive relief to know, although I wished I had known at the time!

Just a couple of years ago I learnt exactly what happens physically during a panic attack and why. For me this was a massive turning point in my recovery and helped me piece the puzzle of anxiety together.

So I’ want to share this information with you and I hope it helps you as much as it helped me. Enjoy the listen….

The brain

  • Thoughts race.

  • Harder to think clearly and rationally.

  • Can feel “unreal“ or “detached”.


  • Eyes widen allowing in more light.

  • This allows us to see better in the dark when we are running from danger.


  • Experience dry mouth.

  • This is due to the narrowing of blood arteries.


  • The side-effects of all the speeded up systems in the body will cause hot flushes.

  • Sweating allows the body to cool again and makes the skin slippery to enable escape from a predator.


  • Beats faster and you can often experience palpitations.

  • This is because our blood pressure increases as the heart pumps more blood to the muscles, allowing us to fight or run away.

Tingling and Trembling

  • This happens because blood is diverted to the large muscles and the small blood vessels constrict resulting in tingling, trembling and sometimes numbness.


  • Very often in terrifying situations we feel an urgency to pass urine.

  • This is because the inner sphincter muscle relaxes.

  • As long as the outer sphincter muscle remains under control you should not actually wet yourself.


  • When the body prepares for fight or flight, blood containing vital oxygen and glucose energy is sent to the large muscles in the arms and legs.

  • This can leave a feeling of tension in the muscles and some people also experience aches and pains.

  • In this phase you may also experience cold hands and feet and this is because the blood is moved away from the extremities to the larger muscles.


  • Adrenaline reduces bloodflow and relaxes the muscles in the stomach and intestines at it is not needed in this area during flight or flight.

  • This process can cause the “butterfly“ feeling, churning and nausea.


  • During a panic attack our breathing becomes faster and more shallow.

  • This helps to take in more oxygen which is then transferred around the blood system, giving vital oxygen rich blood to the larger muscles.


  • A side-effect from our faster, more shallow breathing is a feeling of dizziness or lightheadedness.

  • You may have experienced or witnessed someone breathing in and out using a brown paper bag when they are having a panic attack. This technique is used to regulate the breathing pattern back to a normal rhythm.

My next blog looks at the behaviours we use to manage our anxiety. Tune in to see how these behaviours can help us in the moment but also how they help to feed our anxiety

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