We can feel under the weather for many different reasons – we might have a runny nose or a cough or feel sick – there’s a whole host of symptoms that come together to make us feel like we have the flu. These different symptoms have also been linked to anxiety or anxiety attacks, appearing both separately and together.
As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its 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. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.
Why Can Anxiety Feel Like The Flu?
There are a lot of reasons why anxiety can manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, firstly when our body goes into fight, flight or freeze mode our brain shuts down non-essential processes so that we can focus all our attention and energy on the perceived threat. This includes temporarily shutting down our immune system. Now in small doses this is pretty harmless, however if you suffer from anxiety, these experiences happen more and more often, suppressing our immune system for long periods of time at regular intervals. As a result, we’re more susceptible to illness and colds, thus producing flu-like symptoms.
The next reason is that when we’re in this survival mode, our body is operating at a very high level, so when the perceived threat passes we feel really tired and run down. This energy crash makes us feel drowsy and dizzy, which can often feel like the brain fog we experience when we have the flu.
Another reason is that when we’re in fight, flight or freeze our body becomes hypervigilant and hypersensitive. This means that any slight changes become much more noticeable and it becomes more difficult to come back to our balanced state of homeostasis. The release of extra levels of cortisol and adrenaline from the limbic system have been thought to prolong this state of hyperstimulation, meaning that even after the perceived threat has passed, our body remains in a stressed state.
Finally, this stress response has several symptoms such as hyperventilation and increased body temperature due to the recirculation of blood and oxygen to major muscles, that can give off the impression of flu-like symptoms. For instance, the rise in body temperature causes us to feel feverish, then the consequential cold sweats can make us feel chilly. Similarly, hyperventilation causes a lack of carbon dioxide in our system making us feel lightheaded and dizzy, also symptoms of the flu.
How Can I Stop This Symptom?
As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response and accompanying heightened central nervous system, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing and keep moving. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and get blood and oxygen recirculating back to where they should be. This way our immune system can kick back in and do what it does best, keeping us healthy.
Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, 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.