Anxiety is a mental health condition, so it may seem logical to assume it primarily involves mental or emotional symptoms, not physical ones. But anxiety often also involves somatic symptoms, or symptoms felt in the body. In fact, some people may experience more physical symptoms than emotional ones.
Anyone who’s ever felt nervous can likely name many common physical symptoms, including:
- Shaking or trembling
- Flushed skin
- Increased sweating
- Pounding heart
But people living with chronic anxiety issues, including panic, phobias, general anxiety, or social anxiety, may experience more persistent symptoms, even when they don’t have any reason to feel nervous.
These symptoms can resemble those of serious health conditions, and some people may not recognize the nature of their distress. They may worry instead they have heart trouble, chronic migraines, or other health issues. Accordingly, these physical symptoms may not only cause immediate distress, they also often contribute to long-term confusion and stress around the true cause of symptoms.
Learning more about anxiety’s physical effects on the body can help make anxiety more recognizable to people dealing with physical symptoms.
Learning more about anxiety’s physical effects on the body can help make anxiety more recognizable to people dealing with physical symptoms.
Seven Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can cause plenty of physical complaints, so people living with anxiety could notice the following physical signs, in addition to mental health symptoms.
1. Anxiety and dizziness
Dizziness often arises as a symptom of anxiety. You might feel:
- Off-balance, particularly in crowded areas or open spaces
- As if you’re spinning or swaying from side to side
The relationship between anxiety and dizziness can go both ways, creating a feedback loop. People who worry about losing their balance, falling, or losing control in a public place may become anxious whenever they feel dizzy, and one symptom may worsen the other.
Research from the Academy of Neurologic Physical Therapy suggests this happens when the vestibular system, which helps regulate sensations of movement in your environment and the position of your body, interacts with the limbic system, which helps regulate emotional experiences.
These fears can lead many to cope by avoiding activities likely to cause one or both symptoms, including physical activity or experiences likely to provoke anxiety or stress. This can have a negative impact on quality of life over time.
2. Anxiety and chest pain
Chest pain is one anxiety symptom that often causes alarm, especially when pain accompanies a rapid increase in heart rate and shortness of breath. These symptoms, of course, can also suggest a heart attack, so many people who experience chest pain worry their symptoms are life-threatening. When seeking emergency medical care, they may feel frustrated and distressed when there’s no medical explanation for their pain and heart palpitations.
But according to one study of 151 patients reporting chest pain, 59 percent had symptoms of anxiety. Research from 2006 supports the finding that people who seek emergency care for chest pain often have anxiety rather than a cardiac condition. Panic attacks, in particular, may share many similarities with an oncoming heart attack.
Someone having a heart attack, however, will most likely experience a squeezing pain that may radiate toward the jaw or left arm. Women often notice pain in their upper back or shoulders.
3. Anxiety and headaches
Experts have linked anxiety to both tension headaches and migraines. Headaches can develop as a symptom of anxiety for many reasons, including the following:
- Sleep disturbances. Insomnia and other sleep issues also commonly occur with anxiety, so many people living with anxiety don’t get enough sleep. Insufficient or disrupted sleep can trigger a migraine.
- Low serotonin. Some research suggests the neurotransmitter serotonin can help regulate emotional health. Low levels of serotonin may contribute to mental health symptoms, including anxiety. A rapid drop in serotonin levels could also narrow your blood vessels, which can lead to headaches.
- General stress. Stress can contribute to anxiety, especially when you feel overwhelmed and aren’t sure how to cope. Both stress and anxiety can cause muscles to tense up repeatedly, and lingering muscle tension often leads to head pain. But stress is also known to trigger migraines.
4. Anxiety and digestive issues
Persistent gastrointestinal distress often occurs as a physical symptom of anxiety. Medical research suggests this happens because of the connection between the brain and the gut. Nerves shared by the gut and the brain can interact with each other and have a negative impact on normal bodily processes.
Most people have experienced stomach “butterflies” or nausea when nervous or worried about something. But people living with chronic anxiety might notice more serious issues, such as:
- Chronic stomach pain or cramping
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Appetite changes
- Worsened irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Worries about experiencing things like vomiting or diarrhea in public can contribute to increased anxiety and emotional distress. Long-term GI distress can even make it difficult for some people to function as they usually would, which can lead to significant negative consequences for their quality of life.
5. Anxiety and breathing difficulties
Many people experience breathing problems when feeling anxious. Breathing troubles can range from hyperventilation, or very rapid breathing, to sensations of choking or feeling unable to draw a breath.
These symptoms don’t typically persist over time. They generally happen whenever a situation becomes tense or involves some fear or nervousness. Panic attacks often involve choking sensations, and it’s not uncommon to feel as if you can’t breathe. These feelings can be very frightening, and they often worsen anxiety’s emotional symptoms.
6. Anxiety and numbness
Numbness or tingling can also occur as a physical sign of anxiety. People with anxiety tend to experience this sensation, often described as pins and needles, in the hands, arms, legs, or feet.
Experts believe it happens in response to bodily arousal. Anxiety symptoms develop when the body feels threatened. In response to this perceived threat, the body redirects its resources, like blood, away from the extremities and to the more essential organs, such as the heart.
Hyperventilation can also contribute to numbness and tingling. When you hyperventilate, you end up with an excess of oxygen in your blood. This excess of oxygen means the body doesn’t have enough carbon dioxide to maintain typical processes. As a result, blood vessels constrict, and blood doesn’t flow to areas the body considers less essential, like hands and feet. Other symptoms, including head pain, increased heart rate, and dizziness can also happen in response to this lack of carbon dioxide.
7. Anxiety and chronic pain
There’s plenty of scientific evidence supporting the connection between chronic pain and anxiety.
Results of one study from 2013 found that, among 250 people living with chronic pain, 45 percent of them also had symptoms of at least one type of anxiety. The chronic pain patients who also had anxiety tended to experience greater pain and lower quality of life than those who did not have anxiety symptoms.
People with both chronic pain and anxiety often have a lower tolerance for pain and become trapped in a distressing cycle of symptoms.
People constantly in pain may:
- Feel distressed and worried about experiencing more pain
- Avoid activities that could relieve anxiety symptoms because pain makes it difficult to move around.
- Become anxious about their ability to take care of responsibilities due to pain
Long-term chronic pain has also been linked to depression. It’s not uncommon for people living with anxiety and chronic pain to also have symptoms of depression.
Long Term Effects of Anxiety
Anxiety symptoms develop because the body mistakenly believes it’s about to face a serious threat. Physical and emotional symptoms result from bodily changes known as the “fight-or-flight” response. Once the body engages in this mode, hormones enter the bloodstream at higher levels than usual, triggering those well-known symptoms of anxiety.
So, although anxiety serves an important purpose—to prepare the body to face threats in the environment—problems can develop when anxiety sends the body into fight-or-flight mode too often or the body remains in fight-or-flight mode for a long period of time, which can happen when you have trouble coping with anxiety symptoms.
Medical research has found evidence to suggest links between long-term anxiety and the following conditions:
- Heart attack and other cardiovascular issues
- High blood pressure
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory issues
To sum up, people with anxiety, especially untreated anxiety, don’t only experience immediate physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. They may also see a decline in overall health over time.
Can Therapy Help with the Physical Effects of Anxiety?
Just as therapy can help address the emotional impact of anxiety, it can also help people manage physical symptoms. Addressing anxiety causes and triggers will generally lead to improvement of all symptoms, physical or mental.
People who experience physical symptoms of anxiety will typically work with a therapist who helps them identify and address possible causes or triggers of anxiety. Specific types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure therapy, can help people learn to address anxiety in the moment and learn potential methods of reducing anxiety in daily life.
But therapists can also offer guidance on specific ways to address physical symptoms. These might include:
- Breathing exercises to cope with hyperventilation
- Coping skills and lifestyle remedies to manage pain or headaches
- Relaxation techniques to decrease muscle tension and pain
- Tips to better manage stress and help prevent various physical symptoms from developing
Because many physical signs of anxiety do resemble symptoms of serious health conditions, it’s always wise (and highly recommended) to talk to a doctor about any concerning physical symptoms, especially if you have any doubt about what’s causing the symptom.
This is particularly important with chest pain. Since chest pain occurs during heart attacks as well as panic attacks, it’s often best to talk to a medical professional even when you feel certain anxiety has caused the pain. Once they’ve ruled out a heart attack or similar issues, talking to a therapist can be a helpful next step.
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