Anxiety is a common mental health condition affecting millions of people in the U.S. When you think of the symptoms of anxiety, you probably think of symptoms like nervousness, racing thoughts, and constant worries. These are all common symptoms of anxiety disorders.
However, many people find that anxiety affects their bodies as well. Here’s how you can recognize, and cope with, the physical symptoms of anxiety, like muscle tension and anxiety chills.
What are some common physical symptoms of anxiety?
You’ve probably felt the physical effects of anxiety whether or not you live with an anxiety disorder. For example, you could have experienced clammy hands before giving a big presentation. You might have felt your legs trembling before you got on a rollercoaster. These are all due to the ways that anxiety and fear can manifest in your body.
If you do have an anxiety disorder, then many of its symptoms are physical. Not everyone who lives with anxiety experiences physical symptoms, but most people do.
Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (or another anxiety disorder).
People with anxiety can have tremors, especially during an anxiety attack. You could find that your hands or other extremities start shaking when you’re feeling especially anxious.
Many people have gastrointestinal problems that come along with anxiety. Some of the most common stomach symptoms include stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, and vomiting.
Shortness of breath
It’s common for people to find that they have a hard time breathing when they feel anxious. This symptom might cause you to hyperventilate or gasp for air. This symptom can be dangerous if you already live with lung problems like asthma or COPD.
Have you ever felt your heart “beat into your throat” when you were feeling nervous? Many people with anxiety experience an increased heart rate or a pounding heart, especially when their symptoms are severe. It sometimes even feels like your heart is skipping a beat or that your heartbeat is irregular.
People with anxiety could carry tension in their muscles, especially in their neck and shoulders. Having so much of your body tensed up all the time could lead to aches and pains in your body as well.
Most people have the experience of sweating more than usual when they’re feeling nervous about something. People who live with anxiety may feel sweaty or clammy most of the time.
People with anxiety often have headaches that can’t be explained by a physical illness. This is sometimes related to tense muscles. Anxiety can also cause you to feel a heaviness in your head or a “brain fog.”
Anxiety can be exhausting. Often, people with anxiety experience fatigue, exhaustion, and even weakness in their bodies.
Tightness in the throat
Tightness in the throat, also called Globus sensation, can come on when you’re feeling anxious. This symptom can make you feel like you can’t swallow or that you have something stuck in your throat.
Anxiety can manifest in the body’s ability to sleep. Up to 90% of people who live with an anxiety disorder also have insomnia, or an inability to sleep.
Do you ever get the chills when you’re sick with a fever? Some people experience this symptom when they’re anxious, too. This happens because your body may regulate its temperature when it’s in fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Some people with anxiety become very dizzy or lightheaded, and could even faint. This is sometimes related to breathing; when people start to hyperventilate, they could experience dizziness.
Dry mouth when anxious can be caused by a variety of different anxiety-related factors, including breathing too hard through the mouth and heartburn along with certain medications.
Tingling or numbness
Some people feel tingling or numbness, especially in their extremities, when anxious. This could be related to restricted blood flow.
Changes in appetite
Some people with anxiety lose their appetite, while others eat more when they’re anxious.
Anxiety attacks can cause your chest to hurt. In fact, people often mistake panic attacks for heart attacks because of this symptom. Chest pain, on top of heart palpitations, can be very scary for people with anxiety.
Anxiety can also affect your hormones, which can cause irregular periods for menstruating women.
Why does anxiety cause physical symptoms?
Mental and physical health are deeply interlinked, and any mental health condition can cause physical symptoms. However, anxiety affects the physical body more directly because of stress.
Human beings developed stress as a way to protect themselves when faced with danger. The stress response causes physical changes that prepare the body to fight, or run away from, the danger. This is referred to as the fight-or-flight response.
For example, our human ancestors may have started to take shorter and shallower breaths to get extra oxygen into the body. They may have gotten sharpened senses like hearing.
For people who live with anxiety, everything feels like a danger. They may not need an activated stress response to fight off predators like our ancestors did, but their bodies interpret many things as high-risk. This causes them to be in fight-or-flight mode (also called fight, flight, or freeze mode) most of the time, whether they’re actually faced with a “danger” or not.
Short-term stress can protect you. But being under stress for long periods of time, also called chronic stress, isn’t good for your body. This is why people with anxiety disorders often have physical symptoms. Their bodies are constantly under the stress response, which leads to symptoms like muscle tension and more. Most physical symptoms associated with anxiety are a result of the stress response (fight, flight, or freeze response).
Physical health consequences of anxiety
On top of the immediate physical symptoms of anxiety, living with anxiety (especially long-term) can lead to an increased risk of some physical health conditions.
Some physical illnesses that are linked to anxiety include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Misuse of drugs and alcohol
- Immune system issues
The research shows that people with these illnesses are statistically more likely to have anxiety. In some cases, these illnesses could come first.
How can I tell if it’s anxiety?
One question that clients commonly have is, “How can I tell whether it’s anxiety or a physical illness causing these symptoms?” It’s a fair question, considering that many of these physical symptoms — like chest pain or lightheadedness — are symptoms of serious physical health conditions. It’s important to be able to differentiate whether or not it’s related to anxiety so that you can get the treatment you need.
The truth is that the only way to know for sure whether or not your symptoms are related to anxiety or something else is to see a medical provider for an evaluation. It’s important that you receive a medical evaluation if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms to rule out any physical illnesses that require treatment.
Many people find that the more often they experience these symptoms, the more able they are to tell whether it’s anxiety or something else. If you’re unsure, contact your therapist or healthcare provider and let them know what you’re feeling.
How to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety is a mental health condition, but its physical symptoms can lead to very real physical health consequences that are not just “in your head.” Anxiety is a serious illness that requires treatment. If you have an anxiety disorder, it’s likely symptoms won’t just go away.
Although anxiety disorders are chronic — meaning there’s not yet a cure for them — there are many effective treatment methods. Most people who receive treatment for anxiety enter remission, which means their symptoms no longer interfere with their daily functioning. There are also lifestyle changes you can make to better manage anxiety symptoms.
Here are some of the ways to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Practice deep breathing
Your breath is directly affected when you have anxiety. You might feel like you can’t breathe or start to hyperventilate. This is a common effect of your body’s stress response.
You can counteract this by practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing. By doing this, you can activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system which directly counteracts the stress response.
One easy way to practice deep breathing is by using the 4-7-8 breathing technique. First, inhale slowly and deeply, through your nose, for four counts. Then, hold your breath at the top for seven counts, and exhale through the mouth for eight counts. Repeat this process, slowly, until you feel your body start to calm down.
Get enough sleep
Sleep and anxiety can get locked in a self-perpetuating cycle. Anxiety interrupts sleep quality, but not getting enough restful sleep also makes anxiety worse.
By practicing good sleep hygiene, you can break this cycle and may start to feel less anxious. Important sleep hygiene practices for anxiety include:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends
- Reserve your bedroom for sleep only
- Keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark
- Create, and stick to, a bedtime routine
- Avoid screens for an hour before your bedtime
Research has found that physical exercise could be a beneficial treatment for anxiety. If you have certain physical symptoms, like difficulty sleeping or muscle tension, then exercise might be especially helpful for you.
Find a form of exercise that makes you feel good. Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week.
Get professional anxiety treatment
Lastly, if you live with an anxiety disorder, it’s important that you get treatment. Without treatment, your anxiety may only get worse — which could lead to preventable physical consequences like high blood pressure.
At The Center • A Place of HOPE, you will find a safe and respectful environment where you can focus on overcoming anxiety and its painful physical symptoms.
Our unique Whole Person Care approach ensures that your anxiety treatment will address the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life. In this way, you can start healing from the inside.
We can help you find ways to manage uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you and your family.