Sensations

Anxiety and Numbness - A Typical Reaction

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 31st, 2020

Anxiety and Numbness - A Typical Reaction

Anxiety can cause hundreds of different physical responses, and unfortunately many of these responses can increase anxiety. One such response is numbness. Numbness is a broad term that means a "lack of feeling." Those with anxiety can actually suffer from both physical numbness (ie, a lack of feeling to the touch) as well as emotional numbness (inability to feel emotions - especially positive emotions).

Both of these may be caused by anxiety and both of these can cause significant distress.

How Anxiety Causes Numbness

Numbness is an unusual sensation. For some, it's literally the lack of feeling - no amount of touching that area of the body produces any sensations. For others, it's more of a tingling, where the person can feel something there in that area of the body but it doesn't feel like something normally does to the touch.

Talking to a doctor is also useful, especially if the numbness is ongoing. While numbness is associated with some very dangerous diseases, there are some physical causes of numbness, there are some causes that are 100% harmless, and others that may not be physically related.

Anxiety and Physical Numbness

Numbness may occur anywhere in the body. But it's most common at the extremities. Most numbness complaints with anxiety are related to the:

  • Hands
  • Feet
  • Legs
  • Arms

…with some people complaining of a numb face or a numb scalp. There are reports of numbness in other areas of the body as well, although numbness rarely occurs on the stomach. Remember, for some people it can be a complete numbness. For others, it may be that tingling feeling that some people get when their extremities "fall asleep."

There are two potential causes of this type of numbness. The first is simply over-activation of the body. When you're having an anxiety attack, blood flows to the areas that "would" need it most if you were encountering a dangerous situation, like your heart and muscles. This is what's known as the "fight or flight" system.

In order to cover the amount of blood necessary for the fight or flight system, it has to be taken away from areas believed to be less important. That can cause those areas to feel numb.

The other cause is hyperventilation.

Hyperventilation is also common in those with anxiety disorders, especially panic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. It occurs because anxiety changes breathing habits - not only during an anxiety attack, but also just in everyday life - and those changes involve:

  • Breathing too quickly.
  • Breathing in too much oxygen while breathing out too quickly.
  • Breathing too shallow.

Hyperventilation also makes it feel as though you cannot get a full breath so that you try to breath harder. Unfortunately this makes hyperventilation worse, because hyperventilation is the act of having too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide.

Your body needs carbon dioxide to function, so when you hyperventilate your body ends up working less efficiently. It constricts blood vessels, preventing blood flow to various areas of your body, ultimately leading to numbness. Often this is accompanied by other symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat and lightheadedness, and may trigger or be the result of an anxiety attack.

Normal Numbness Mistaken as Anxiety Numbness

Another problem is that those with anxiety tend to become "hypersensitive" to the way their body feels, and interpret those feelings as pain. It's not uncommon for the leg, arms, fingers, and feet to fall asleep naturally for a variety of reasons, such as simply sitting on them wrong. But those with anxiety have a tendency to misinterpret these normal sensations as though they're something wrong, often triggering their own anxiety.

Emotional Numbness and Anxiety

Anxiety has also been linked to the development of depression, along with several related symptoms. One such symptom is emotional numbness. It occurs when it feels as though all emotion is stripped out of the world - as though the person can't experience positive feelings.

It's not clear what causes emotional numbness biologically, but it is likely an automatic response to extreme stress. Anxiety can be incredibly draining and cause a great deal of stress on the mind and body. It's possible that emotional numbness is the brain's coping response to stress - believing that it's easier to feel no emotions at all than to feel extreme stress from anxiety.

Emotional numbness can be scary, and if it starts to be accompanied by any dangerous thoughts or tendencies, see a doctor right away. Most emotional numbness with anxiety goes away after an extended period of time after an anxiety attack, but some have been known to linger. If you experience emotional numbness, actively try to overcome it, because long term numbness can be harder to treat.

How to Cure Numbness From Anxiety

Like most anxiety symptoms, the numbness itself isn't cured, it's prevented. Ideally, you need to take steps to prevent your anxiety from coming back in order to prevent this type of numbness from recurring. But if you're currently feeling numbness and you've already been to a doctor that has confirmed you have anxiety, you can consider the following:

  • Move Movement is good for the body, and good for blood flow. Ideally you should take a short jog, if possible, since that can have a fairly powerful effect on both anxiety and blood movement. But if you're too stressed to jog, get up and walk around. Walking is calming for the body.
  • Breathe Slower Since many people with numbness are hyperventilating, learn to breathe slower. Make sure your breaths take at least 15 seconds, and that you're holding your breath for a couple of seconds at its peak to help your body regain its carbon dioxide levels.
  • Create Healthy Distractions Both anxiety and hyperventilation become more likely if you're focusing too much on your symptoms. It can be extremely difficult to distract yourself from these sensations, but it's not impossible. One of the most effective is going for a walk outside and talking to someone you like on a cell phone. It's hard to hold a conversation and focus on your symptoms, and that can help you decrease both your anxiety and your numbness.

Otherwise, the cure for anxiety numbness comes from learning to control your anxiety.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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