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Think You Have the Flu? It Might Be Anxiety

Aches, pains, lethargy and headaches might mean you have the flu. But those symptoms also could be the telltale signs of anxiety.

It is not uncommon for people experiencing anxiety disorders to find themselves with some of the same physical symptoms as those with these more common infectious diseases. That may help explain why the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorders increased dramatically during the COVID pandemic.

Chronic stress and high stress levels have long been known to cause symptoms similar to influenza, a respiratory illness. In severe cases stress can lead to chest pain, seizures and difficulty breathing.

This is related to the way your body is primed to respond to perceived or actual threats. When threatened, your brain, nervous system and cardiovascular system go into overdrive to keep you safe.

That system can be turned on by a wide range of external or internal events. So it isn’t always obvious what’s going on when your body starts exhibiting symptoms. With extreme stress, you can become fatigued, have difficulty breathing and experience mental fogginess. At the same time, flu and other infections can cause an inflammation that creates a similar full-system response.

COVID and Anxiety

Illness anxiety is a condition experienced by some people, who become preoccupied with a perceived physical disease or condition, prompting them to focus excessively on symptoms. The COVID pandemic created a fertile breeding ground for illness anxiety, with so much emphasis on the importance of stopping the disease from spreading through the community. That anxiety was only heightened by the added fear of passing the disease on to a loved one.

Unlike with the flu or other more common diseases, there was an unprecedented lockdown and period of isolation. For many people, that added even more stress and anxiety. Even the onset of mild COVID-like symptoms could prompt the body’s defenses into high alert. In effect, the pandemic primed the pump for anyone who might be prone to anxiety-induced illness.

This heightened level of arousal can also sap the strength of your immune system. As a result, you can become more vulnerable to infection or illness, and as an unfortunate consequence, those initial underlying fears may become reinforced.

How Can We Tell the Difference?

The hallmark difference between anxiety and flu symptoms is the achiness – or rather how you feel achy. With the flu, you may feel an all-over discomfort that’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint. With anxiety, that achiness is going to be more narrowly confined to muscle groups, particularly in your neck, shoulders and chest (the result of all that unrelenting tension and nervous system in overdrive).

Other differences include the way your breathing is affected. With the flu, the classic respiratory symptoms are coughing and difficulty breathing. With anxiety, the symptoms are more likely to be rapid breathing and a tightness in the chest.

And when anxiety is in full swing, you may feel shaky or trembly, which could be confused with chills. But with the flu, those chills are more sensitive to temperature changes. And you are likely to feel cold and not just shaky.

Among the most common anxiety symptoms:

  • Feeling nervous or tense
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Panic or a sense of impending danger   

Diagnosis and Treatment

Primary care doctors and mental health providers are key to determining when anxiety is the cause of your flu-like symptoms.

A thorough physical examination will be accompanied by an assessment exploring your symptoms, including duration and frequency. One important question to answer is what was happening in your life before the symptoms started.

This can help you understand if something in particular might have prompted the anxiety. Having an objective observer help you look at the big picture can often help identify anxiety as the root cause.

Treatment for anxiety often begins with cognitive behavioral therapy, which identifies patterns in the way we relate to other people and how we live – including work, leisure and home life. The goal is to pinpoint where those patterns break down and then how to break out of a harmful cycle.

When faced with physical anxiety symptoms, the goal of this therapy is to help you find ways to relax your body. Relaxation can change your thought patterns. When you are physically relaxed, it’s less likely that your mind will go a million miles a minute worrying over things.

It’s important, however, to remember that anxiety plays a key role in our lives. It’s not something that should be avoided or suppressed. Instead, it’s about recognizing it for what it is, so that you can have more control over it – and not letting it control you.

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