Many of us associate anxiety with emotional distress rather than physical pain, but anxiety can manifest itself in physical ways that serve to reinforce the perceived threat that our brain is falsely detecting.
One of the many physical symptoms that may be experienced during an anxiety-inducing situation is pain in your leg. Now, this might sound bizarre considering anxiety is largely to do with our emotional and mental wellbeing, however physical symptoms of anxiety rarely occur solo.
A common symptom of anxiety is an increase in breathing speed or hyperventilation. Despite it feeling as if we can’t get enough oxygen when hyperventilation occurs, in reality we’re breathing in far more and far quicker than we’re breathing out, so we’re actually over oxygenising our system. It’s CO2 we’re lacking.
Why does anxiety cause leg pain?
There’s a couple of types of leg pain that can be caused by anxiety. When we lack carbon dioxide, our muscles tend to seize up and cramp, causing pain. This is similar to when we exercise and we begin to breathe faster to gain more oxygen. If we do this for too long the cramps, particularly in our legs, take hold.
Another kind of leg pain is when we keep our muscles tensed for too long. Feelings of anxiety are normally characterised by a release of the stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline in the caveman part of our brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. It’s primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. This puts our body on high alert. It causes our heart rate to rise, our senses to heighten and tenses our muscles in preparation to either fight, flight or freeze.
Too long in this tense state also causes cramps, so if we can’t calm our system down quick enough and convince our caveman brain that the perceived threat perhaps isn’t as life or death as it thinks, this anxiety-driven situation could cause leg pain.
What Can I Do To Stop This Symptom
In order to get the blood flowing and the oxygen-carbon dioxide levels back in control, we need to tackle the hyperventilation. You can do this by taking long deep breaths, instead of the short, shallow bursts.
To help increase the blood flow to your muscles and prevent cramping, try to move around and rub the affected areas to improve the circulation and prevent the build up of lactic acid.
Of course, this helps us to stop the symptoms in action, but in order to prevent the symptoms occurring, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.