Every week, dozens of people send me emails asking for help with physical symptoms that their anxiety is causing them. One of the more common symptoms that comes up, and one that causes people significant distress, is sweating.
When my websites first went live back in 2006, and these emails started coming in, it surprised me that so many of them were about sweating. Sweating was never a symptom that affected me throughout my years with anxiety, and it never dawned on me that it could be such a severe problem.
I’ve since learned, through talking with many of my subscribers, that sweating can be as severe as any other symptom that’s caused by anxiety.
Since so many people with anxiety list sweating as one of their worst physical symptoms, I wanted to put together a post on the subject, and that’s what this is.
Why Does Anxiety Cause Sweating?
Your anxiety makes you sweat because it causes your “fight or flight” response to misfire.
Your fight or flight response is a survival mechanism. It’s hard-wired into your brain and it bypasses all of your conscious thoughts. That means you have no direct control over it. It kicks in instinctively to protect you from danger.
Here’s how it works.
When you encounter something that could be dangerous or threaten your survival, the fear you feel triggers the fight or flight response. Powerful chemicals get released into your bloodstream that cause significant physical changes:
- your senses get sharper
- your pupils dilate
- your breathing quickens
- your heart rate quickens
- your body shuts down non-essential functions
- your muscles tighten
- your body sweats
Each of these physical changes increases your chances of surviving the danger you’re facing.
Sharper senses and dilated pupils make you super-vigilant, aware of every possible danger. Faster breathing and heart rate make you temporarily super-fit, ready to fight or run for your life. Sweating lowers the temperature of your skin, keeping you cool during your struggle for survival.
The fight or flight response is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it’s an incredible survival aid and it could save your life one day, on the other hand, it can be triggered when it’s not needed and that can cause you serious problems.
I mentioned just now that the fight or flight response is initially triggered by feeling intense fear, and that the fear generally comes from encountering a physical danger.
But here’s the problem.
When you feel intense fear because of your anxiety, your brain can’t tell the difference. All your brain knows is that you’re terrified of something.
You might be getting mugged by a man with a knife, or you might be feeling extreme anxiety because of a worrying thought you just had. Your brain can’t tell the difference so it plays it safe and triggers the fight or flight response, just in case.
When you have extreme anxiety, you’ll often experience the fight or flight response simply by thinking anxious thoughts that make you scared.
That means you’ll experience all of those huge physical changes that you would if you were in extreme physical danger, even if you’re just lying safely in your bed, or sitting watching TV.
One of those physical changes you might experience is sweating.
So here’s how your anxiety makes you sweat:
- you constantly think anxious thoughts
- your anxious thoughts cause you to feel intense fear
- your subconscious misunderstands the fear as a sign of danger
- your fight or flight response is triggered
- your brain releases powerful chemicals to prepare you to run or fight
- your body undergoes significant physical changes
- you begin to sweat
Whenever you sweat from this point on, remember this sequence of events that lead to your sweating. You should be able to find some reassurance in the knowledge that it’s just your anxiety causing the sweating and not some other more unpleasant physical problem.
How to Stop Sweating Caused by Anxiety
There are 2 approaches to stopping the sweating that your anxiety causes:
- short-term fixes
- long-term fixes
The short-term fixes will help you control your sweating when it happens, while the long-term fixes will prevent your sweating from happening in the first place.
Short-Term Fixes for Sweating Caused by Anxiety
The sweating all starts with your fight or flight response – something you have no direct control over. Once that response is triggered there’s nothing you can do stop the physical changes that follow.
So if you sweat as part of your fight or flight response, you can’t undo it. Instead, you need to address the sweating directly. It’s the best you can do.
Sweating is generally associated with heat or warmth, so stopping it or easing it is normally best achieved with things that cool you. Things to try that will help you include:
- remove any extra layers of clothes
- turn off any artificial heat sources (radiators, fires, flat-screen TVs, computer monitors etc.)
- turn on air conditioners
- open windows
- point a fan in your direction (direct air on your skin is great to make sweat evaporate before it stains your clothes)
- use a cold, damp cloth to wipe sweat away (much better than a dry cloth because a cold cloth also cools your skin and prevents more sweating)
- wear sports clothes that are designed to wick away sweat before it has a chance to stain your clothes (if sports clothes are inappropriate, wear them underneath your normal clothes)
Long-Term Fixes for Sweating Caused by Anxiety
The best way to address your sweating is to stop it before it ever happens, and to do that you need to attack the problem at its root.
Here’s a reminder about how this problem starts in the first place:
- you constantly worry
- your worrying causes fear
- your brain misunderstands your fear as danger
- your fight or flight response is triggered
- you sweat
I said that you need to attack the sweating problem at its root, and if you look at the series of events in the list above, you’ll see that the first thing that happens (the root) is that you constantly worry.
Your constant worrying is the root-cause of your sweating, and that’s the thing you need to stop in order to prevent your sweating altogether.
The good news is that you don’t need to stop your worrying completely. That would be impossible, and even people who don’t have problems with anxiety worry from time to time.
You just need to reduce the amount of worrying that you do.
Even a small reduction in your total time spent worrying is often enough to reset your fight or flight response so that it isn’t triggered when it isn’t needed.
The best way to reduce worrying is to use something that I call “mini relaxations.”
The purpose of mini relaxations is to interrupt your worrying for long enough that your body and mind can relax. Enough of these interruptions to your worrying throughout the day are often enough to reset your misfiring fight or flight response.
Let me show you the best mini relaxations I’ve found that might work for you too:
- deep, controlled breathing for 2 minutes several times a day
- hot baths and showers (taken more often than the usual 1 or 2 times a day)
- listening to gentle music whilst lying down with your eyes closed
- gentle walks (even better if you have a dog, in my experience!)
- listening to audiobooks (being read to is very soothing, and it’s something we stop doing as adults – start doing it again)
- short naps (for some people, short naps are wonderful, for others, they can cause grogginess. If you can get away with them, they’re a wonderful way to relax)
- short spells of meditation (nothing special required – just sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, and focus on your breathing for 5 minutes)
- anything else that has even the smallest calming effect on you
These are ideas that work well for me, and ideas that other people have told me work well for them. Try them out and see what works for you.
Also, try to come up with your own. What you want to end up with is a list of mini relaxations that you can call on whenever you need them.
The plan then is to use these mini relaxations throughout your day, even at times when you feel you don’t need to relax. Anxiety creeps up on you, and sometimes you aren’t even aware of it.
Use your mini relaxations all the time, every day, to give your mind and your body the breaks they need to overcome the problem of your misfiring fight or flight response.
Sweating can be a very frustrating part of living with anxiety, and it’s a symptom that’s very hard to address.
Most symptoms can be tackled directly. If you’re dizzy, you can lie down. If you’ve got a headache, you can take a painkiller. But with sweating, there’s nothing concrete that you can rely on.
Instead, you have to tackle it at its root, and that root is the constant worrying that comes with all forms of anxiety.
If you can find ways to interrupt your constant worrying, your fight of flight response will be triggered far less often, and that means symptoms like sweating will then become a thing of the past.
Use the mini relaxations I’ve shared with you in this post, and come up with your own to complement them. These mini relaxations, as simple as they seem, are the key to stopping your sweating at the root level.