8 Anxiety Symptoms You've Probably Experienced (and why they are surprisingly necessary for survival)

Friday, December 06, 2013 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Anxiety sucks, mostly because we don't get to use it the way it was intended. Instead of using it to run from a tiger or fight an alligator, we feel the urge to run from something not even remotely tiger-like. Bummer.

Imagine yourself in a boardroom. As you stand to make your presentation, you feel a tightness in your abdomen. Your heart feels as if it is going to beat right out of your chest and you find that you are having trouble breathing. As you try to stop your hands from shaking, you wonder, "Why is this happening?"

What Anxiety Is...and What it Isn't

Anxiety is a common experience among

human beings. Every animal needs a way to respond to danger, and we are no exception to this rule. However, we have been conditioned to see anxiety as a mental health disorder instead of a useful system. The idea that anxiety is useful can be hard to accept when trying to see the benefit of wanting to run away from your boss.

Though, seriously, maybe that boss is a scary dude. Nothing says "I am out to get you" like a pocket protector.

While many find themselves being called things like "overly sensitive", "neurotic" or some other equally disparaging label, anxiety evolved as a way to help us survive. If we can focus on anxiety symptoms and their evolutionary importance, we may be able to shift perspective from anxiety as a "disorder" to anxiety as a vital tool for survival. It may be easier to see these responses for what they are if we take a little of the stigma out of the physical symptoms themselves.

Anxiety Symptoms and Their Importance

Most people have slightly different meaning for the term "anxiety". The underlying physical mechanisms are generally similar, though the way individuals experience them may differ.

Symptoms may include:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Shaking
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
  • Tunnel vision
  • Sweating
  • Nausea/Vomiting/Diarrhea
  • Racing thoughts

From an evolutionary perspective, the symptoms are absolutely necessary for survival.

Here is what they do:

  • Elevated heart rate: moves oxygenated blood into areas necessary for fighting or fleeing
  • Shaking: side effect of all that blood moving around, or related to tingling (see below)
  • Tingling in the extremities: blood must be pulled from the extremities to avoid bleeding to death in a fight, leading to the pins and needles feeling
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation: Increases oxygenation of the blood for fighting or fleeing
  • Tunnel vision: direct focus on the challenger
  • Sweating: to cool body during battle or running
  • Nausea/Vomiting Diarrhea: purging excess food so that all energy can be used for protection, not metabolizing food
  • Racing thoughts: to identify stressor and prepare for all possibilities

While this is not an exhaustive list of all possible anxiety symptoms, it is an illustration that there is no task completed by the body that occurs in vain. While you may fear having a heart attack in the throes of panic, the symptoms themselves are not generally dangerous. Dropping dead of a heart attack at the feet of a saber toothed tiger would have defeated the purpose, and led to our extinction long ago.

So rock the presentation. Pocket protectors can't kill you.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use