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Sensory Problems Caused By Anxiety

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Sensory Problems Caused By Anxiety

Anxiety can affect your body in fairly unusual ways. While you may be aware that anxiety can cause your heart rate to increase and your body to sweat, you may not be aware that anxiety can have a much broader impact on all of your senses.

In this article, we'll look at a small sample of some of the sensory problems caused by anxiety, and discuss what you can do to control these experiences.

Anxiety and the Five Senses

Every one of your senses can be affected by anxiety in different ways. Anxiety can also lead you to develop more long standing issues, where you start to experience unusual physical symptoms that don't generally fall under the category of anxiety. 

Let's take a look at each of the five senses individually and discuss some of the most common anxiety symptoms that fall under each category.

How Anxiety Affects Touch

Sensory abnormalities related to touch are common, although often the person suffering from them doesn't realize that it's a sensory problem. Anxiety can cause numbness and tingling, especially in the limbs, and some people experience burning sensations on their skin. Anxiety may also cause people to experience hot or cold sensations in their body, especially when they come into contact with objects or environments that are of different temperatures.

Many people also develop an increased sensitivity to pain and discomfort, and others experience a positive touch in a negative way, such as when you hold hands with someone. We’re not sure how exactly anxiety alters the link between touch-receptors in your skin and your brain; but often the frustration and irritability that accompany anxiety can make all of these experiences and sensitivities that much worse. 

How Anxiety Affects Hearing

Anxiety may also cause sensory problems related to hearing. There is some evidence that anxiety is associated with auditory hallucinations (such as hearing voices), although these are fairly uncommon, according to a 2016 paper on the topic. 

However, anxiety can make harmless (but irritating) issues like tinnitus worse. It can also make it more difficult to pay attention to what's going on around you, due primarily to distractions but also the way anxiety overwhelms the mind. This might mean that you fail to hear something; or perhaps that you mishear it. It can also make the noises you hear around you seem harsher and more grating. 

How Anxiety Affects Vision

Vision is often affected by anxiety. The adrenaline released by anxiety dilates the pupils, and when the pupils are dilated you may experience any number of symptoms:

Some people with anxiety report seeing specks in their vision, or double vision. However, it’s not clear at this point whether anxiety actually causes these problems. 

How Anxiety Affects Taste

Taste can also be affected by anxiety to some extent. There is some evidence (discussed in the 2012 paper referenced below) that stress changes the sensitivity of taste buds, perhaps also altering the way that signals travel between your taste buds and brain. 

You might, for example, experience a metallic or salty taste. It should also be noted that anxiety can cause excess salivation and acid reflux - both of which may also causes changes to your tastes. Anxiety may also cause you to become more sensitive to certain types of tastes.

How Anxiety Affects Smell

Finally, there's also the sense of smell. Anxiety and emotion more generally do seem to affect the way in which a person perceives smells (in terms of the intensity of the smell and how quickly that smell is noticed). However, we don’t yet fully understand the nature of this link. 

Furthermore, anxiety can make people more sensitive to bad smells. They may focus on them more or notice them more often. That gives the impression that there are more negative smells, when in reality the person is simply noticing them. Additionally, anxiety can lead to a buildup of mucus. Mucus itself can have a smell, and it can also dampen other smells in some cases.

Stopping Anxiety Sensory Problems

As we have discussed, anxiety is closely tied up with the neurological functioning of our bodies and brains. Each of our senses can be affected in different ways by the anxiety that we experience. If these sorts of sensory changes are causing you distress, the simplest solution is to address the underlying anxiety that is causing such sensory alterations.

Article Resources
  1. Chen, Denise, and Pamela Dalton. The effect of emotion and personality on olfactory perception. Chemical Senses 30.4 (2005): 345-351.
  2. Ileri-Gurel, Esin, Bilge Pehlivanoglu, and Murat Dogan. Effect of acute stress on taste perception: in relation with baseline anxiety level and body weight. Chemical Senses 38.1 (2012): 27-34.
  3. Ratcliffe, Matthew, and Sam Wilkinson. How anxiety induces verbal hallucinations. Consciousness and Cognition 39 (2016): 48-58. 
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