• Rachel Paige

More than a Mental Illness

I took a required public speaking class last semester. The first speech was an informative speech on any topic. I thought of doing it on social anxiety. I instantly had a counterthought: You won’t be able to do it. Notice the use of “you” instead of “I” that I explained here? It was my anxiety talking. I told it to shut up and did the speech.

It was completely unintentional (but so brilliant I wish it wasn’t), but I became my own visual aid. I listed some of the physical symptoms of social anxiety and held up my hands, which were shaking so bad I couldn’t hold my notecards.

Suddenly, avoiding eye contact, nervous gestures, fidgeting, and my shaking voice weren’t hurting my speech (or my grade). They were helping it. But like I said, that was unintentional. I’d taken the anti-anxiety medication I use for panic attacks before I spoke. I’d been breathing deep and had rehearsed my speech many times.

Despite all that, I still had intense physical symptoms.

I’ve talked a lot here about the internal side of my anxiety, but today I’m focusing outwardly. Remember the post I did a while ago on anxiety attacks feeling like heart attacks? If not, it’s right here.

So besides fake heart attacks, what other physical symptoms might there be?

I mentioned fidgeting. I bite my nails and my bottom lip a lot. I was a pen-clicker before I realized how much people hate that. I pull on my hair. I spin my ring. I fiddle with my necklace. I touch my earlobes as if I’m playing with earrings (I’m not, I can’t wear them). Someone recently pointed out that I rub circles on my right palm with my opposite thumb (it’s actually very soothing, give it a try).

I also mentioned shaking hands. Shaking can also apply to basically every part of the body, for me that’s usually my hands, my legs, and my voice. Other than that, I’m probably just cold.

Similar to a shaking voice, there’s stuttering or stammering. I’ve pretty much got a handle on this one now and have learned to pause when I feel like I’m going to get stuck. When it does happen, it’s a stammer, a lot of filler and repeated words. Ex: “This, this is, uhh… this is an ex-example of, of stammering… and not, not even an exaggerated one.”

Anxiety can cause stomachaches. Thankfully, I don’t get those all that often, but I do lose my appetite almost instantly if I’m eating in crowded areas or with strangers.

It can cause headaches and lightheadedness, and the latter often goes along with hyperventilating or feeling short of breath, for obvious reasons. For me, these also tend to go along with a racing heartbeat.

Muscle tension, in general. Personally, I clench my jaw and don’t necessarily notice my shoulders tensing up at the time, but I certainly feel them relax when the anxiety has passed.

Hypersensitivity. Man, could my parents tell you stories about this one. This is becoming hyperaware of surroundings, things like loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, clothing tags, etc. I refused to wear jeans as a kid because “there’s lines in them.” I’m planning on giving this one its own post later, so this is all I’ll say for now.

Freezing. Again, talk to my parents. As a kid, I’d curl in a ball on the floor and refuse to move. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of that, but my speech still freezes during anxiety attacks.

These are the ones I feel most often, and majority of the most common one. Other common symptoms include blushing, sweating, blank mind (unable to think of anything), and feelings of detachment (out-of-body experience).

So even though I focus a lot on the mental side of social anxiety, it is so much more than that. The physical symptoms, fidgeting in particular, affect me as much, if not more, as the anxious thoughts do.

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