What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Stressful situations can get our heart racing, our palms sweating, and our stomach churning. What does anxiety feel like? It's even worse...

what does anxiety feel like

The graphic here illustrates the concept of "fight or flight" in nature. The same physiological reaction happens in humans, too, when we encounter a stressful situation. Do we dig in, or disappear? Situations often dictate, but the feelings of intense anxiety can be the same either way.

© Alain Lacroix | Dreamstime.com

It’s important to realize that anxiety isn’t “all in your head.” That is, people who suffer from anxiety aren’t simply choosing to avoid certain situations or activities because they have convinced themselves they’ll be unpleasant. So… what does anxiety mean? And what does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety actually can cause overwhelming physical symptoms. It triggers what is known as the body’s “fight or flight” reaction, which gives us—as the phrase suggests—the energy to stand up to or run away from an imminent danger. This surge can be extremely useful if you’re being chased by a tiger or a mugger; it’s less useful when you’re trying to force yourself to go into a business meeting to give an important presentation.

Your body, in reacting to that “fight or flight” moment, releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenalin). These hormones produce intense physical symptoms that include a racing heart, sweating, trembling, nausea, or “butterflies in the stomach.” (Anxiety symptoms in men, by the way, may differ from anxiety symptoms in women.)

The symptoms described above tell your brain that you’re in danger. Even if you know you’re safe (probably no one will attack you during your presentation, no matter how poor a job you do), the “lizard” part of your brain flatly refuses to believe it. While you may try to tell yourself everything is okay, that primitive instinct is screaming “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!” in a way that’s essentially impossible to ignore.

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Why the Answer Isn’t So Simple

If you know people who suffer from anxiety, you may wonder why they don’t avoid the situations or things that stress them. Just remember that their bodies respond to stress-causing elements as if they were in immediate physical danger.

It may help you to harken back to a day when you were in real danger, and to recall your own reaction. Or, better yet, picture yourself in an imaginary situation fraught with danger. For instance, say you have just angered a diabolical gangster, and he has ordered his henchman to dangle you by your legs out of a 20-story building. You know they won’t drop you because you’re the only person with the combination to a safe full of diamonds. But there you are, dangling 20 stories up. How would you feel? You’re in no real danger, but can you stay calm? Think straight? Stop your heart from pounding or your palms from sweating? Would you willingly put yourself in that situation again? Could you give a coherent speech? Make small talk? Enjoy a movie? That’s what anxiety feels like.

How to Handle Anxiety

Thankfully, there are multiple ways to handle anxiety. Some rely on therapy, others call on medication, and still others may involve natural remedies.

Your first step may be to deal with your anxiety via therapy or counseling. Read these University Health News posts for tips on how to find the right type of therapist:

For information on how medication can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, see the following posts:

Interested in how a natural approach can ease anxiety? Click on the link below:

(For further reading on the topic, click here: comparing anxiety and stress.)


Originally posted in May 2016 and updated.

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