You may feel a prickling or pins and needles sensation when you’re anxious. Some practices, including physical activity, may help restore sensation. Numbness can also have other medical causes.
Anxiety conditions — whether that’s panic disorder, phobias, or generalized anxiety — involve plenty of different symptoms, and not all of them are emotional.
Your symptoms could include physical concerns like muscle tension, an upset stomach, chills, and headaches along with emotional distress such as rumination, worry, and racing thoughts.
Something else you might notice? Numbness and tingling in various parts of your body. This can be pretty unnerving, especially if you’re already feeling anxious.
Luckily, if your numbness isn’t an anxiety symptom, it’s usually not anything serious.
Common causes of numbness other than anxiety include:
- sitting or standing in the same position for a long period of time
- insect bites
- low levels of vitamin B-12, potassium, calcium, or sodium
- medication side effects
- alcohol use
Why does numbness show up as an anxiety symptom for some people? How can you tell whether it relates to anxiety or something else? Should you be seeing a doctor ASAP? We’ve got you covered.
You can experience anxiety-related numbness in a lot of ways.
For some, it feels like pins and needles — that prickling you get when a body part “falls asleep.” It can also just feel like a complete loss of sensation in one part of your body.
You might also notice other sensations, like:
- the prickling of your hairs standing up
- a mild burning feeling
While numbness can affect just about any part of your body, it often involves your legs, arms, hands, and feet.
The sensation doesn’t necessarily spread through the entire body part, though. You might only notice it in your fingertips or toes, for example.
It can also show up along your scalp or the back of your neck. It can also show up in your face. Some people even experience tingling and numbness on the tip of their tongue, for example.
Finally, numbness might appear on one or both sides of your body or show up in a few different places. It won’t necessarily follow a specific pattern.
Anxiety-related numbness happens for two main reasons.
The fight-or-flight response
Anxiety happens when you feel threatened or stressed.
To handle this perceived threat, your body responds with what’s known as the fight-or-flight response.
Your brain begins sending signals to the rest of your body right away, telling it to get ready to face the threat or escape from it.
One important part of these preparations is an increase in blood flow to your muscles and important organs, or the areas of your body that would provide the most support for fighting or fleeing.
Where does that blood come from?
Your extremities, or the parts of your body that aren’t as essential to a fight-or-flight situation. This rapid flow of blood away from your hands and feet can often cause temporary numbness.
If you live with anxiety, you might have some experience with how it can affect your breathing.
When you feel very anxious, you might find yourself breathing rapidly or irregularly. Even though this might not last very long, it can still decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood.
In response, your blood vessels begin to constrict, and your body shuts off blood flow to less essential areas of your body, like your extremities, in order to keep blood flowing where you need it most.
As blood flows away from your fingers, toes, and face, these areas may feel numb or tingly.
If hyperventilation continues, the loss of blood flow to your brain can cause more significant numbness in your extremities and eventually a loss of consciousness.
It’s also worth noting that anxiety can often increase sensitivity to physical and emotional reactions — other people’s reactions, yes, but also your own.
Some people with anxiety, particularly health anxiety, might notice numbness and tingling that happens for a perfectly ordinary reason, like sitting still too long, but see it as something more serious.
This response is pretty common, but it can still frighten you and worsen your anxiety.
If your anxiety sometimes manifests itself in numbness, there are a few things you can try in the moment for relief.
Regular physical activity can go a long way toward
Moving your body can help distract you from the cause of your anxiety, for one. But exercise also gets your blood flowing, and it can help your breathing return to normal, too.
You might not feel up to an intense workout, but you can try:
- brisk walking
- a light jog
- some simple stretches
- running in place
- dancing to your favorite song
Try breathing exercises
Belly (diaphragmatic) breathing and other types of deep breathing help many people manage anxiety and stress in the moment.
Deep breathing can help with numbness, too, since these sensations often happen when you have trouble breathing.
Belly breathing 101
If you don’t know how to breathe from your belly, here’s how to practice:
- Sit down.
- Lean forward with your elbows resting on your knees.
- Take a few slow, natural breaths.
You’ll automatically breathe from your belly when sitting like this, so this can help you get familiar with the feel of belly breathing.
You can also try resting one hand on your stomach while breathing. If your stomach expands with each breath, you’re doing it right.
If you make a habit of practicing belly breathing whenever you feel anxious, you can help prevent that pesky fight-or-flight response from taking over.
Find more breathing exercises for anxiety here.
Do something relaxing
If you’re working on a task that’s making you anxious, try distracting yourself with a low-key, enjoyable activity that can also help take your mind off whatever’s contributing to your anxiety.
If you feel like you can’t step away, keep in mind that even a quick 10- or 15-minute break can help you reset. You can go back to the stressor later when you feel more equipped to handle it in a productive way.
Try these calming activities:
- watch a funny or soothing video
- listen to relaxing music
- call a friend or loved one
- have a cup of tea or a favorite beverage
- spend some time in nature
As your immediate anxiety passes, the numbness probably will, too.
Try not to worry
Easier said than done, right? But worrying about numbness can sometimes make it worse.
If you often experience numbness with anxiety (and then begin to worry even more about the source of the numbness), try tracking the sensations.
Maybe you’re feeling a little anxious right now. Try a grounding exercise or other coping strategy to manage those immediate feelings, but pay attention to the numbness. How does it feel? Where is it located?
Once you get to feeling a little calmer, note whether the numbness has also passed.
If you only experience it along with anxiety, you probably don’t need to be too concerned.
If it comes up when you don’t actively feel anxious, note how you do feel in a journal. Any other emotional or physical symptoms?
Keeping a log of any patterns in the numbness can help you (and your healthcare provider) get more information about what’s going on.
Numbness doesn’t always suggest a serious health concern, but in some cases, it could be a sign of something else going on.
It’s wise to make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you experience numbness that:
- lingers or keeps coming back
- gets worse over time
- happens when you make specific movements, such as typing or writing
- doesn’t seem to have a clear cause
It’s especially important to talk to your healthcare provider right away if numbness happens suddenly or after head trauma, or affects a large part of your body (such as your entire leg instead of just your toes).
You’ll want to get emergency assistance if you experience numbness along with:
- sudden, intense head pain
- muscle weakness
- trouble speaking
Here’s one final thing to keep in mind: The best way to relieve anxiety-relates numbness is to address the anxiety itself.
While coping strategies can help a lot, if you live with persistent, severe anxiety, support from a trained therapist can be helpful.
Therapy can help you begin exploring and addressing underlying causes of anxiety, which can lead to improvements in all of your symptoms.
If you notice your anxiety symptoms have started affecting your relationships, physical health, or quality of life, it may be a good time to reach out for help.
It’s not uncommon to experience numbness as an anxiety symptom, so while tingling sensations can feel pretty unsettling, there’s usually no need to worry.
If the numbness keeps coming back or happens with other physical symptoms, you’ll probably want to check in with your healthcare provider.
It never hurts to seek professional support for emotional distress, either —therapy provides a judgment-free space where you can get guidance on actionable strategies to manage anxiety symptoms.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.