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Anxiety and Paralysis

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Anxiety and Paralysis

Anxiety can be paralyzing, both figuratively and literally. Often, living with anxiety feels like you’re being deprived of the ability to live a normal life. Emotionally, you may constantly feel like a deer in the headlights, unable to move or get out of the way of the threat.

Anxiety can also be paralyzing physically. At least, there are symptoms that can make you feel like your body is literally paralyzed. In this article, we'll explore the physical and emotional paralysis that can happen in people who have anxiety.

Emotional Paralysis

Let's start with the idea of emotional paralysis, because this is something that many people with anxiety deals with from time to time. 

Anxiety is caused by your body reacting to fear, even though a literal, dangerous threat isn't necessarily present. There may be something worth fearing, but the level of anxiety you experience may be disproportionate to the fear you should experience in that situation. For example, having to give a speech at your friend’s wedding is not a life-threatening situation, even though it may feel that way.  

Having said that,  you may also experience anxiety in the absence of any easily noticeable fearful thoughts.. Anxiety itself is the activation of the fight or flight response - a reflex that your body uses to react to danger - and there are many people that experience these symptoms all the time, despite no rational fears serving as triggers for the anxiety. 

The fight or flight response can lead to a sense of emotional paralysis. This is because all of your mind’s energy is centered on one specific task: surviving danger. This not only stresses you out, but leaves you without enough emotional or cognitive resources to think calmly and rationally about what you need to do to tackle your anxiety. 

Many people experience anxiety as emotionally paralyzing because no matter how hard they try, they don't feel they can do anything about their symptoms. This is not true, however: there are things that you can do! Anxiety treatment programs are often highly effective, even though these are commitments that require you to dedicate time and energy in order for them to be effective. 

Physical Paralysis-Like Symptoms

Apart from the way that anxiety can affect our emotions, this disorder can also cause physical symptoms that resemble paralysis. You may experience a sense - in your face, arms, legs or torso - that you’re simply unable to move your body. 

There are two reasons that this occurs. The first is hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is the act of breathing out too much carbon dioxide, so that your body responds by slowing down blood flow to certain areas of your body. This is what causes it to feel as though certain body parts can't move. They may start to tingle or feel numb, causing you to feel as though your muscles aren't working. Hyperventilation is triggered by anxiety; and it may maintain or worsen your anxiety as well. 

The second issue is a bit more complex. Our bodies perform many movements automatically. These include, for example, blinking, swallowing, smiling or moving out of the way of an approaching vehicle. Your mind sends signals down your nerves for how to move, and you move them. When you walk, even if you are thinking about walking, you generally don't focus on literally each muscle movement one at a time. Walking - like all movements - are unconscious and controlled by your mind.

When someone suffers from anxiety, they often focus deeply on the way their body feels, becoming highly attuned and conscious of movements which would otherwise be performed spontaneously and automatically. The process of actively contemplating the series of movements that you’re performing may interfere with the automatic process whereby those actions would normally be carried out. This may make automatic movements harder to perform, creating a sense of immobilization. 

These issues are never permanent and not something you need to concern yourself with too much, but they do make it feel as though something is wrong with your muscles or body, and that can increase your anxiety in the future.

Fight - Flight - and Freeze

We often talk about the fight or flight response, because anxiety is directly linked to that response. But for some people, it is not as simple as “fight or flight.” For some people, they experience a drive to fight, flight, or even freeze. 

The analogy is of the “deer in the headlights.” When a deer is about to be hit by a car, it doesn’t run or otherwise fight in any way: rather, it freezes. That freezing - while not the best course of action when a car is coming your way - is an evolutionary adaptation because in nature, sometimes remaining perfectly still minimizes your chances of being spotted by a predator. 

That response is not limited to deer. Lots of animals have it, and so do humans. So, if you’re faced with extreme fear or panic and you feel like you can’t move at all, you may be experiencing the “Freeze” response. 

Control Anxiety to Stop This Type of Paralysis

Remember, anxiety really is something you can beat. But you need to make sure you're committed to your treatment plan and willing to do what it takes to combat your anxiety once and for all. Whether it’s therapy/counseling, medications (speak to your doctor or psychiatrist first), self-help, or some other method, anxiety is a manageable condition that responds well to treatment. You just need to make the first step.

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