Most Common Physical Symptoms of Anxiety: Pain and Panic

March 12, 2024

Be sure to check the bottom for resources for anxiety course and other ways to get support.

What Does Anxiety Pain Feel Like?

Parking Lot Confrontations

As we sat down to record a recent podcast episode, one of the other therapists came in and sat down. She quickly asked me "Colter, what happened to your car?"

This question was news to me for as far as I was concerned my car was totally fine. She informed me that somebody has dented and scraped the side of it. I ran out to investigate and surely enough there was a big solid dent and nice edgy scrape running alongside the passenger side of my car. And of course they didn't leave a note. I could already feel my heart rate increasing as the blood flow in my body started to pick up.

Fortunately, I have a dash cam and was able to use some amazing detective skills to figure out who the perpetrator is. If my career as a therapist ever takes a nosedive I now know I can fall back on being a private investigator or advisor to Sherlock. It was only about an hour later that I found the car responsible for the damage. As I walked back into my office to leave them a note I saw somebody begin to walk in that direction. It was actually the person who hit me!

I thought, "well, I guess it's now or never" and I walked up to go talk to them.

I imagined that a confrontation was probably about to ensue and I felt that fight or flight response system starting to kick in. I could feel the muscle tension taking place in my body and the feelings of anxiety started to mount. It was mixed with a bit of anger but I was mostly experiencing anxiety symptoms as I was afraid of what was going to happen. Not necessarily that a physical altercation was about to occur, but more that just the conversation would be confrontational and awkward. Since he didn't leave a note he was probably going to deny it and I didn't really have 100% proof. Was I going to have to call the police to get them involved? What if it does get violent? Am I about to have an anxiety attack?

Keep in mind that I have only taken about seven steps in the amount of time that all of these thoughts and physical sensations took place. I called out to him and asked if he hit my car while trying to park.

He turned back to me and told me that he did. He was actually very nice, took ownership of the situation, gave me his insurance information, said he would take care of it, and apologized.

It went about as smoothly as it could have gone. Literally, situation diffused in a matter of about five seconds.

But here's the interesting thing that happened. I went back into my office and joined my staff for a meeting, who had all seen me approach the man in the parking lot through the window. As I told them about what happened and how it was not a big deal, the physical symptoms of anxiety were still there. They weren't leaving my body even though nothing happened. I impulsively shook my hands to try and rid myself from further anxiety. One of the trauma therapists quickly informed me that animals leaving a battle will shake their body off to expel some of the energy and process what just happened. Gotta love getting a quick psychosomatic lesson from a therapist.

All in all it took me about five minutes to come down from the underlying anxiety, obviously not that long in the scheme of things. But it still felt sort of silly that my body was experiencing these sensations as the result of anxiety when I logically knew that nothing had actually happened and nothing more was going to happen. I was safe and in actuality was always going to be safe, I just might have had to have an uncomfortable conversation which anxious thoughts love to latch on to.

And that is all because anxiety is a physical response that the body experiences. We often think of anxiety as this cognitive experience where we are going over possible situations in our head and reasoning with ourselves. And it's true that this takes place, but the part that is the most painful about the anxiety is what is taking place in our bodies.

When panic attacks occur, it's not as much the thought of "what if I die or what if I go crazy?" it's the shortness of breath and chest tightness that we hate. And as illustrated in the story above, this process happens very quickly, especially if you are somebody that suffers from condition like panic disorder.

And while I am thankful for my body's ability to help me evade danger, panic attack symptoms can be awful. Our body does not know the difference between a bear coming to attack us and needing to have a confrontational experience with somebody. It runs the same process and releases the same stress hormones. The emotional distress comes on and our body starts pumping cortisol through our veins and screaming "run!"

What To Do and Daily Life

Luckily we have a lot more skills and resources than we had years ago and have more knowledge about how we can engage with this. Employing some relaxation techniques can be helpful, though I prefer to not think about them with that sort of verbiage. It implies that we the goal for us is to relax and that might not be possible during a stress response. What we can do is engage in some deep breathing as a way of recommunicating to our body that we are actually safe in the moment that we are in. The goal is not necessarily to escape severe anxiety, but allow it to pass like a wave. It will eventually pass, but our attempts to control it usually make things worse. When taking deep breaths, I usually like to do four by four breathing. Four seconds in, four seconds hold, four seconds out, four seconds hold, repeat.

I also like to think of living a life where anxiety does not thrive. What I mean by that is by taking on lifestyle changes so that you do not exist at the upper edge of your window on a consistent basis. Getting enough sleep is really the foundation to having good mental and physical health. If we can stack the deck in our favor with some small tweaks to our everyday life, why not?

Getting regular exercise is also helpful in this regard. I like to think of getting my body some practice at having a rapid heartbeat, but on my own terms. Not only is it good for our cardiovascular health, it also gives me an opportunity to practice for when I do get into a situation where I've got some anxiety-induced chest pain. I can think of how I've been here before and was able to make it through.

Lastly, seeing a mental health professional can be very helpful when anxiety is causing a burden in your life. Historically, people have sought out cognitive behavioral therapy but I believe we have better modalities these days. I like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) when it comes to understanding our thoughts a little bit better. For instance, ACT pushed back against the idea that we even have negative thoughts at all and says they are all just "thoughts." For more somatic approaches I have seen EMDR, brainspotting, and sensorimotor all being very helpful. Most people seek out medical care as last line of defense, but I think that psychopharmacological intervention should not be understated here. I've seen taking an anxiety medication be life changing for some people. Of course you should always consult with a healthcare provider before making any decisions, rather than reading a blog on the internet.


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