Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, only to be greeted by your racing thoughts running wild? The thoughts are so frightening that you feel paralyzed. You try to fight but cannot control these thoughts racing through your mind. This is anxiety, and many people experience it every day.
Anyone who’s experienced it will tell you that an anxiety disorder is no fun. The manifestations of panic — like rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness — are unpleasant enough. But there’s a whole other level of panic that accompanies the fear of having a panic attack or the fear that if you have one, you won’t be able to stop or control it. That kind of anxiety can be truly paralyzing.
So, what exactly is paralysis in anxiety? What causes paralysis in anxiety? And can it be treated? Let’s learn.
What Is Anxiety Paralysis?
The term ‘paralysis’ describes feeling frozen in place, unable to move, or unable to speak. It’s a common symptom of anxiety, but it’s not the same as physical paralysis.
Paralysis in anxiety is caused by hyperventilation (rapid breathing) which causes carbon dioxide levels in the blood to fall too low, leading to muscle spasms and cramps. These spasms make people feel like they are frozen in place when anxious.
It’s common for people with anxiety disorders to experience paralysis in some situations. For example, if you have a social anxiety disorder, you’ll likely feel paralyzed before or during a social event where you must speak in front of others.
The same goes for if you have agoraphobia (a type of anxiety disorder that makes you afraid of certain places). If your agoraphobia is severe, it may be difficult for you to leave the house because of fear of having a panic attack or feeling anxious in public places.
Physically Paralyzing Anxiety
Physically paralyzing anxiety is a type of anxiety where you feel such intense fear that it causes physical symptoms like feeling frozen, dizzy, nauseous, or weak.
While anyone can experience this type of anxiety, it tends to be more common in people who have experienced trauma. Trauma can include sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional trauma. People with physically paralyzing anxiety may also experience:
- Feeling like they are going to faint or pass out
- Sweating profusely
- Chest pains or a racing heart rate
- Shortness of breath or smothering sensations
- Uncontrollable shaking or tingling sensations (in arms, legs, face)
- Racing or uncontrollable thoughts
Emotionally Paralyzing Anxiety
Emotionally paralyzing anxiety is a form of chronic anxiety that can make you unable to cope with everyday stresses. It’s often marked by repeated panic attacks, constant worry and fear, and a tendency to overthink every situation.
People who experience emotionally paralyzing anxiety may find it difficult to function normally in their daily lives. They may constantly feel on edge, with physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and chest pain interfering with their ability to perform tasks at work or school.
A person with emotionally paralyzing anxiety may also experience other symptoms, such as:
- Constant worry about something bad happening
- Feeling like they can’t trust themself or others around them
- Feeling like their life is out of control
- Feeling that everything is going downhill in their life
Causes of Paralyzing Anxiety
Many factors can cause paralyzing anxiety. Some of these factors include:
Family history – If you have a family history of anxiety disorders or other mental illnesses, there’s a higher chance that you’ll also develop them. This is because genes play a massive role in whether or not someone develops an anxiety disorder.
Stress – Stress can cause anxiety in anyone, but those who are prone to developing the condition will experience more stress than others. Stressors include schoolwork, relationships, money problems, and other situations that put pressure on us daily.
Traumatic events – Traumatic events such as rape, abuse, or death can trigger panic attacks in anyone at any time in their life, even years after the event occurred, if they were affected by it strongly enough at the time.
How Does Paralyzing Anxiety Affect Life?
Imagine being unable to get out of bed in the morning because you’re so afraid of facing the world. Or not being able to date someone you like because you’re afraid of what they might think. Or not being able to take your children to the park because you’re too anxious about going outside.
This is what paralyzing anxiety can do to you: it can rob everyday life of enjoyment, fun, and meaning.
Anxiety is normal but can impact relationships, employment, and physical health when it becomes chronic or debilitating. It also can lead to depression and substance abuse.
Treatment with medication and/or therapy is often helpful for many people with anxiety disorders. But if you suffer from panic attacks or phobias that make routine activities difficult, medication alone may not be enough to help you manage your condition.
Treatment for Paralyzing Anxiety
The first step to treating paralyzing anxiety is to talk about it.
If you’re feeling so anxious that you can’t move, it’s common for people to feel embarrassed about their symptoms and try to hide them. But there are many effective treatments for anxiety, so don’t be afraid to talk with a doctor or counselor about your symptoms.
In many cases, the best treatment for paralyzing anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy can help you learn how to manage your thoughts and emotions while changing your behaviors. With CBT, you’ll work with a therapist to teach you how to identify and challenge the negative thoughts that cause your symptoms and replace them with healthier thoughts.
You may also learn techniques such as relaxation exercises or mindfulness meditation that can help reduce the stress-related symptoms of anxiety.
Some people relieve their symptoms by taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antidepressants used to treat depression. SSRIs work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain and balancing out specific chemicals that regulate moods. Side effects may include nausea or headaches initially, but they tend to go away over time as your body adjusts to the medication.
How to Cope With Paralyzing Anxiety?
If you’re struggling with anxiety, you may wonder how to cope with paralyzing anxiety. Anxiety can be terrifying and overwhelming, but there are ways you can work through it and get through the day. It’s important to remember that everyone experiences anxiety in different ways. The following strategies will help you cope with paralyzing anxiety:
- Understand what triggers your anxiety.
Is it an uncomfortable situation or a specific time of day? Identifying the triggers can help you avoid those situations or learn how to cope with them when they come up.
- Call a friend.
Talking things over with a trusted friend can help you put things in perspective and give you an outlet for your feelings. If you don’t have someone with whom you feel comfortable, consider joining a support group or therapy session.
- Exercise regularly.
Exercise is one of the best ways to combat anxiety because it helps release natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins into your brain. Exercise also helps boost self-esteem, which is another major factor in controlling anxiety.
Anxiety is often accompanied by panic and stress — so it’s no surprise that practicing relaxation techniques can help ease some of those feelings. Deep breathing exercises are also one of the most effective ways to relax when feeling anxious.
- Stay focused on positive thoughts and memories.
When we think about something negative — like an upcoming interview or presentation — our minds tend to go into overdrive, thinking about all the bad things that could happen instead of focusing on all the good things. Focus on what makes you happy and reminds you why life is worth living.
Getting out of bed can be challenging for chronically nervous or anxious individuals. However, as we explained above, sometimes the first step is simply acknowledging that we’re feeling anxiety so that we know how and what to change.
And if all else fails, the resources are always available to us. In other words, while anxiety may feel like a complex and debilitating condition, once we know where our trouble spots lie, we can commit to identifying them and eliminating them one by one.
So, find a therapist. I know how hard it can be to ask for help, but that’s often when it’s needed. Also, remember that anxiety is treatable, and there are solutions out there.
- Noordewier, M. K., Scheepers, D. T., & Hilbert, L. P. (2019). Freezing in response to social threat: A replication. Psychological Research, 84(7), 1890–1896. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01203-4
- Livermore, J. J., Klaassen, F. H., Bramson, B., Hulsman, A. M., Meijer, S. W., Held, L., Klumpers, F., de Voogd, L. D., & Roelofs, K. (2021). Approach-avoidance decisions under threat: The role of autonomic psychophysiological states. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2021.621517
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Anxiety disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved September 18, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders