For many with anxiety, there is sometimes a fear that their anxiety isn't anxiety. They fear that the doctors are missing something and that they are actually suffering from a dangerous and possibly even fatal position that is affecting their heart or brain.
There are two reasons fear persists for those with anxiety. First, anxiety causes fear-based thoughts, which inherently cause fear itself. Second, anxiety, in some cases, can lead to heart and brain symptoms that can mimic actual physical conditions, diseases, and illnesses. In this article, we'll explore some of the many neurological symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety Severity and Neurological Symptoms
The severity of one’s anxiety plays a key role in the development of symptoms that can sometimes look nearly identical to neurological problems. Millions of people with anxiety have physical symptoms that resemble neurological diseases such as:
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Brain Tumors
- Lyme Disease
The symptoms of these neurological diseases can be so similar to those of anxiety that doctors sometimes need to run various tests to rule out the presence of a serious illness. Because anxiety truly does cause physical symptoms, medical advice is often needed to discern whether a person’s brain and nerves are healthy.
Examples of Neurological Symptoms From Anxiety
It could be argued that anxiety itself is a neurological symptom. After all, anxiety can change neurotransmitter levels in the brain causing them to send unusual signals to the rest of your body. And although anxiety causes no known neurological damage, it still creates symptoms such as:
- Tingling hands and feet - Both adrenaline and hyperventilation (symptoms of anxiety) can lead to the development of tingling hands and feet. Interestingly, adrenaline and hyperventilation both contribute to the tingling sensation in different ways. Adrenaline dilates the blood vessels and sends the blood to the muscles, while hyperventilation constricts the blood vessels which causes less blood to flow to the hands and feet. Some people experience a tingling, while others may experience a numbness, cold sensation, or burning.
- Nerve pain - Anxiety can also cause the development of nerve-related pains. The pains are both real and psychological. Known as "psychogenic pain," the brain essentially activates pain sensors as a result of anxiety and stress. Even though there is technically no identifiable cause of the pain (other than anxiety), the pain experienced is real.
- Lightheadedness/Dizziness - Anxiety can also cause a considerable amount of lightheadedness and dizziness, which can lead to difficulty standing (a feeling as though one’s legs do not work). These neurological symptoms are connected to the processes that occur as a result of anxiety, especially hyperventilation and rushes of adrenaline. While more common for those with panic attacks, these symptoms can affect anyone with anxiety.
- Headaches - Anxiety can trigger all types of headaches, including tension headaches and migraines. Headaches and migraines often present their own uncomfortable symptoms as well, such as eye problems. All of these are known to be triggered by anxiety (though in the case of migraines, doctors are still not sure why anxiety seems to cause them more often).
- Vision problems - Certain symptoms of anxiety, such as migraines and hyperventilation, can both cause vision problems. But even those with anxiety who do not experience migraines or hyperventilation still may suffer vision problems as a result of the anxiety. Anxiety can cause the pupils to dilate, which can affect the clarity of one’s vision and lead to problems with lights.
- Fatigue - Fatigue is common in those with extreme anxiety. It seems to occur due to the overall exhaustion (mental and physical) that anxiety sufferers often experience. Since anxiety can also lead to insomnia, some of this fatigue may be caused by a lack of sleep.
- Memory loss - Memory loss is the only anxiety symptom that could be considered somewhat permanent. The memory loss from anxiety rarely occurs at severe levels, but any memory loss experienced is a result of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can be overly active in those with anxiety, and is known to contribute to mild memory loss.
- Confusion/De-realization - It is also possible for extreme levels of anxiety to contribute to issues such as confusion and even a temporary loss of reality that makes people worry something is wrong with their brain.
These symptoms of anxiety may vary in severity and prevalence depending on the person, but often mirror what those with an actual neurological disorder may experience.
How to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety and Neurological Disorders
Unfortunately, there is simply no way to tell the difference between suffering from anxiety and suffering from a more serious neurological disorder. The symptoms can look extremely similar, and while some may have some minor differences (for example, de-realization is temporary, while a neurological disorder may be permanent or more long-lasting), the reality is there are often no differences.
This is why it is important to always see a doctor. Even though anxiety is extremely common, a doctor is the only way to accurately determine if a person does/does not have an underlying neurological disorder. Once a doctor rules out any neurological problems, it is important to begin to take steps towards controlling the anxiety. Unmanaged anxiety will lead to continued neurological symptoms, and ultimately, more anxiety.
In the extremely rare event that a person does have a neurological disorder, controlling anxiety is still important. Anxiety plays a significant role in not only happiness and overall wellbeing, but also in the success of medical treatments. If there is any reason to think that you have anxiety and not a neurological disorder, openly seeking help is incredibly important.