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Anxiety and the Chills - The Cause and Connection

Jenna Jarrold, MS, LAC, NCC
Anxiety and the Chills - The Cause and Connection

One of the words often used to describe horror movies is "chilling." The idea behind this description refers to the anxiety and fear many experience as a result of watching a horror movie and the resulting sensation of chills produced from that fear.

Anxiety is often connected to experiencing "chills," yet the exact mechanism of the relationship between anxiety and the sensation of chills remains somewhat unclear. What is it about anxiety that causes chills to run down your spine, and why do some people experience these chills more than others?

Chills Before Attacks

Some people report experiencing chills is, for them, an indicator (or an early warning sign) that an anxiety attack is coming. Essentially, while the feeling of chills can be uncomfortable, it can also provide a person insight that increased anxiety is on the horizon and it might be a good time to use helpful coping skills. 

Chills are incredibly common, and often, caused by anxiety.  Depending on the person, and the type(s) of anxiety he or she experiences, chills may arise for different reasons.

The most common contributing factors to a person feeling the “chills” are as follows:

During times of anxiety, the body prepares to enter into fight or flight mode, essentially preparing for “battle”. In a way, the body instantly and automatically prepares to face danger (whether or not there is an actual perceived threat).  

One of the ways the body does this is through lowering the internal body temperature (through goosebumps and possibly a chance in the hypothalamus). The lowering of body temperature occurs in preparation for the body to drastically increase in temperature during the fight/flight mode. This lowered body temperature can often contribute to the sensation of chills. After a period of time, the body will adjust to the cold, often enabling the person to feel “normal” again.

Chills occur often when a person is cold. During times of increased anxiety, a person’s body often sweats (this is a way the body notifies the person of potential danger/fear). Sweating is also designed to cool the body, so a person may experience genuine cold chills as a result of this sweat. Also, it is not uncommon for someone to not even recognize they are sweating during times of anxiety, until the onset of cold chills. 

Anxiety and the body’s fight or flight response may also trigger a redirection of blood flow to areas of the body signaling the need for it most, such as the heart. This means the blood is being taken away from some areas of the body, to serve those most in need. Nonetheless, the areas of the body the blood is being taken from still need a certain level of blood flow to function; and with decreased blood flow, those areas of the body become cooler. The body will usually adjust over time, but until it does they may feel cold.

Hyperventilation is a common symptom of anxiety. Hyperventilation is when a person breathes too quickly or breathes in too much oxygen as a result of stress. When a person is hyperventilating, his or her body struggles to move blood around, which can result in a lowered body temperature.  A person may feel genuinely cold, or may simply experience the sensation of chills until the body adjusts.

As previously stated, chills can occur for a variety of reasons. Of course, chills can be a sign that a person is cold, or it may indicate that a person is surprised or significantly “moved” by something (i.e. - a song). But when a person has anxiety, he or she may overreact, or overthink, their experience of chills, and believe they are caused by some other, more serious issue. 

Safe Way to Stop Cold Chills

Some people are greatly disturbed by the cold chills they experience. Cold chills, in general, cause no harm.  While it is possible for some chills to last a significant length of time (and therefore, be somewhat irritating), they tend to come and go, and necessitate very little extra work to manage and/or avoid them.

The cold chills tend to be directly related to the anxiety. Because cold chills are very common during periods of intense anxiety, such as a panic attack, it is the anxiety that should be targeted, instead of the chills themselves.  

However, if the chills are hugely uncomfortable, there are a few things a person can try to better manage them:

If a person’s chills are significantly impairing their life or wellbeing, it is advised to see a medical professional. Rarely do people see doctors because of chills alone, but there is no harm, as a doctor can help ease one’s mind about any underlying health worries.

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