Anxiety involves extreme and persistent fear and worries about everyday life. One of the many symptoms that can be experienced in an anxiety disorder is numbness.
There are a few types of numbness that can be associated with anxiety: physical, emotional, and dissociative.
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Physical numbness is defined as a loss of feeling or sensation somewhere in the body.
The most obvious form of physical numbness is total numbness, where a complete lack of sensation is present in the body. However, physical numbness can also be experienced as a tingling feeling. This is often described as “pins and needles,” or having a limb that has “fallen asleep.”
Physical numbness is usually experienced in the hands, fingertips, feet, toes, face, and around the mouth.
Although anxiety can commonly cause physical numbness, it can also be due to a number of medical causes, ranging from mild to severe. If you have physical numbness that is unexplained or affecting your daily life, you should see your doctor.
Sudden onset of numbness together with symptoms such as paralysis, headache, dizziness, or confusion could represent a physical cause of your numbness, rather than anxiety. If you experience this, seek emergency medical attention.
Emotional numbness is a common experience in people with anxiety.
It can involve feeling detached and empty, being unable to access your emotions and feelings, and feeling like you’re unable to fully participate in life.
Some people with anxiety also experience dissociation¹. Symptoms of dissociation can include:
Depersonalisation (feeling disconnected from your body or as if you’re outside of it)
Derealisation (feeling as if the world isn’t real)
Dissociative amnesia (with memory gaps)
Various factors can trigger physical or emotional numbness in anxiety. Below are some of them.
When you feel relaxed and are able to breathe normally, you inhale and exhale adequate amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide, keeping this in good balance.
However, anxiety, emotional upset, and acute stress can cause your rate of breathing to increase. This can lead to hyperventilation, which is associated with rapid breathing. This reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood.
Hyperventilation can lead to dizziness, lightheadedness, and a feeling that you can't get enough air. Notably, it can lead to numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth.
The fight-or-flight response
When you feel anxious, stressed, or scared, your body sees something in your life as a threat. As a result, it activates the fight-or-flight response. This response evolved to help our early ancestors survive life-threatening situations.
In today’s world, however, the fight-or-flight response often activates in situations that are perceived as stressful to us but do not actually threaten our survival.
One important part of the fight-or-flight response involves redirecting blood to organs that are essential for survival, such as the heart, muscles, and lungs. This is initiated when the brain sends out certain signals.
The reduced blood flow to parts of the body not essential for immediate survival such as face, fingers, or toes may cause them to feel tingly or numb.
Medications and emotional numbness
Although anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications can effectively improve symptoms of anxiety such as physical numbness, emotional numbness² is a potential side effect.
If you think your medication might be causing or worsening your anxiety-related numbness, be it physical or emotional, you should speak to your doctor to see if the medication dose or type is the right fit for your needs.
Stress and trauma
Emotional numbness can occur as a response to trauma or severe stress. Although we don’t exactly know why this happens, it’s believed that our brain uses emotional numbness or avoidance as a way to cope with the stress it perceives as too much for us to deal with.
Emotional numbness or flatness can be a symptom in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
The physical sensations of numbness that occur due to hyperventilation or a panic attack are usually short-term. The numbness and tingling symptoms can last up to 20–30 minutes.
Emotional numbness will probably last for longer than physical numbness and can often be a chronic symptom of anxiety or depression.
Learning how to cope with your anxiety under stressful situations could help reduce the extent of the numbness and how long it lasts. Some suggestions that may help include the following.
Deep breathing exercises
With these exercises, you breathe with your diaphragm and abdomen instead of your chest wall. You may also breathe through pursed lips³. This could help prevent or stop hyperventilation.
Moving and stretching your muscles allows blood and oxygen to be pumped around your body. If you feel anxious, focus on moving the extremities or shaking the limbs of other areas of the body that can become numb.
Distract yourself and avoid focusing on the numbness itself.
This can help, as sometimes a vicious cycle is created where anxiety leads to numbness. It causes you to have a panic attack and become more anxious, in turn exacerbating the stress response and causing more numbness.
This is a type of psychotherapy centered around the idea that connections exist between your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors. The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to give you the tools and ability to deal with the root of your anxiety and problems that are initially overwhelming for you.
Therapy can also help address your emotional numbness and activate your feelings again.
Although anxiety medications don’t treat the underlying causes of anxiety, they do help reduce symptoms. It helps you feel calmer by increasing chemical messengers in the brain that boost your mood. This could reduce the extent of the fight-or-flight response.
It’s also important to be able to differentiate anxiety-related numbness from other medical conditions that can also cause numbness. If numbness might not be due to anxiety, you should see a medical professional to receive the appropriate treatment.
Some physical causes of numbness can include nerve damage, fibromyalgia, stroke, spinal injury, or nutrient deficiencies.
If you find yourself experiencing the following, you should consult your doctor.
If your anxiety resolves but you’re still feeling numb 20 or 30 minutes later
If the onset of numbness occurs after an injury
If the numbness occurs after you begin a new medication for anxiety
If relaxation techniques don’t relieve the numbness
If it gets worse over time
If you feel dizzy, disoriented, have muscle weakness, or have a headache
Numbness is a common symptom of anxiety. Physically, it is due to hyperventilation or the fight-or-flight response redirecting blood to essential organs.
Although there’s no time frame for how long anxiety-related numbness will last, treating the root cause helps ensure that the anxiety doesn’t last too long and that you return to a calm state of mind as soon as possible.