A stomach full of butterflies, rosy red cheeks, sweaty palms — although it can manifest itself in many ways, the culprit for those jittery nerves remains the same: anxiety. Whether it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon feeling or a day-to-day occurrence, anxiety is an unavoidable reality for everyone. It takes no exceptions, and anyone who says they’ve never experienced at least mild anxiety is probably lying — because anxiety is normal in small quantities.
Anxiety is a deeply-engrained warning system that alerts the body to danger and potential threats. Common symptoms of anxiety include nervousness or restlessness; feelings of panic or dread; rapid heart rate; heavy sweating, lethargy, and difficulty focusing. Job interviews; tests and exams; first dates; a dreaded confrontation with a loved one; getting lost in an unfamiliar city; moving into a new house — all of these things can bring up bubbling feelings of uneasiness, worry, and stress.
Anxiety is often brought on by a perceived lack of control over your immediate environment, and in an untasty dose of poetic irony, the symptoms of anxiety can often seem uncontrollable and difficult to identify. Anxiety isn’t limited to panic attacks, racing hearts, or butterfly-filled stomachs. This tricky-to-spot emotional phenomenon can appear in many forms, some easier to see than others. Although anxiety does affect everyone differently, we’ve compiled a list of some of the lesser-known ways in which anxiety rears its worrisome little head.
Note: We are not medical professionals. If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please contact a licensed health care professional or call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Anxiety can cause more than just butterflies in your stomach. The intestines are the second largest area of nerves outside of the brain. The hormones and chemicals released by your body when stressed are reabsorbed via your digestive tract, which can negatively affect digestion and gut flora.
Gastrointestinal issues that may arise due to stress and anxiety include indigestion; stomach cramps; diarrhea; constipation; unnatural hunger or loss of appetite; nausea; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); and peptic ulcers.
Icy Hands and Feet
Yup, it turns out there’s more to the term ‘cold feet’ than you might’ve thought. If your hands and feet stay icy cold throughout the day regardless of the temperature, anxiety might be the culprit.
Anxiety causes increased sweating, which is your body’s way of naturally cooling itself down to prevent overheating while you escape danger. But with no danger, you just sweat — causing your extremities to cool past what’s comfortable. Cold hands and feet can also be caused by blood vessels constricting due to hyperventilation or rapid breathing. This slowed-down blood flow can also cause tingling and numbing sensations in your fingers and toes.
Sudden overwhelming feelings of anger can be caused by several things, including anxiety. While anxiety is often connected to environmental overstimulation or a perceived inability to handle a “threat,” anger is most commonly connected to frustration. When feelings of anxiety are left unattended, those feelings can transform into anger.
While it can be difficult to fully comprehend negative emotions when you’re in the middle of feeling them, if you find yourself awash with rage at the seemingly mundane, you might have an unaddressed anxiety problem — not an anger problem.
Extreme Work Ethic and/or Perfectionism
Working hard and striving for success is great, but if you find yourself diving headfirst into work with no reprieve, it may be a sign of underlying anxiety. Because of our society’s tendency to venerate unhealthy work ethics, this can be a trickier symptom to identify.
An overzealous work ethic or perfectionism can set yourself up for failure, disappointment, and, ironically, more anxiety. Identifying the root cause of your anxiety, intentional unplugging, and setting up a schedule that includes work and play can help beat a bad case of workaholicism.
High-pitched ringing, low rumbling, swooshing, buzzing, pulsing — phantom sounds are another unexpected side effect of prolonged anxiety and stress. These sounds can affect one or both ears, switch from ear to ear, or occur intermittently.
Recent research suggests that anxiety-induced phantom noises are caused by the connection between hypersensitive neuronal activity, the ear canal, and parts of the brain responsible for auditory processing, including the amygdala, which is thought to be the fear center of the brain.
Dream- or Trance-Like States
Zoning out isn’t just caused by boredom or inattentiveness. Perpetual daydreaming can be a sign of dissociation, the brain’s way of emotionally coping by avoiding negative thoughts or feelings by “checking out.” Unlike purposefully avoiding problems or shirking responsibilities, dissociation can happen at any time without you being aware of it.
Other symptoms of dissociative anxiety include glazed-over looks, staring off into space, a wandering mind, a sense of watching oneself from the outside, a feeling of being disconnected from one’s surroundings, or memory loss.
Yawns seem fairly innocent — we all yawn, right? If you find yourself yawning regardless of how much sleep you’ve gotten, your energy or caffeination level, or the time of day, it might be anxiety causing all of that jaw wagging. Excessive yawning is a side effect of a prolonged fight-or-flight response.
Stress causes the body to increase its heart rate and respiration and tightens muscles. Tight chest muscles can trick your body into thinking you’re out of breath, which can cause constant yawning.
Frequent Colds or Infections
Since the early 1980s, scientists have found a distinct correlation between chronic stress and a weakened immune system. When our endocrine system responds to stress, the release of cortisol and other fight-or-flight hormones decreases white blood cells and inflammation.
Constantly moving from one case of the sniffles to the next might require more than an extra glass of OJ every day or a multivitamin; it could very well be your body physically responding to emotional and mental distress.
Rumination and Flashbacks
We’ve all experienced it: the flashback to a particularly embarrassing, cringe-inducing moment that can wash over you without warning in a big, resounding “oof.” Rumination takes those flashbacks to the next degree, causing repetitive, uncontrollable feelings of guilt, low self-worth, and hopelessness.
Reliving an embarrassing moment every now and then is normal — a constant stream of negative internal self-talk is not and may be a sign your body is having trouble processing prolonged stress or anxiety.
Phantosmia or Olfactory Hallucinations
Smell is one of the oldest senses evolutionarily speaking, and our sense of smell is closely tied to our emotional system. When the body is under stress, two brain circuits typically separate from one another — our sense of smell and our emotional processing centers — can cross wires, causing neutral smells to become malodorous. Phantosmia can also cause the brain to perceive unpleasant smells that aren’t actually there.
Anxiety can increase your body’s sensitivity to smells in your external environment or from your own person. Persistent concerns regarding body odor, bad breath, or an inability to ignore unpleasant odors can be a lesser-known sign of an anxious mind.
Treating Anxiety Once it is Identified
While occasional anxiety is fairly common, persistent symptoms can negatively affect the overall quality of life and can be indicative of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are generally treated with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Support groups and utilizing stress management techniques can also be beneficial.
There are also several holistic and natural ways to remedy persistent feelings of stress and anxiety, including specific herbs and flowers, exercise, and small dietary changes.