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Physical symptoms of anxiety: How does it feel?

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Physical symptomsTreatmentAnxiety medicationsSeeing a therapistCombination therapiesSummary
Physical symptoms of anxiety often include a racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling, sweating, and a sense of unease or discomfort in your body. But there are ways to help manage them.
Medically reviewed by Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Written by Charlotte Parker
Updated on

When you experience anxiety, it can make you feel physical symptoms that may seem difficult to ignore. Your body’s response to stress or an existing medical condition might cause these sensations. So it’s important to discuss them with a healthcare professional. Either way, these sensations might lead to an additional cause of anxiety themselves.

For some people, these symptoms might seem a minor discomfort. But if your anxiety is severe, these symptoms may seem overwhelming, making even simple tasks challenging.

What physical symptoms can anxiety cause?

Adult female sitting on a bed cross legged in a meditative position with a shorthaired cat to her left possibly trying to overcome anxiety physical symptoms
Jessie Casson/Getty Images

There are many types and causes of anxiety, and people experience anxiety in different ways. Anxiety can cause various physical symptoms, including:

  • rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • increased sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • tiredness or weakness
  • shortness of breath or tightness in the chest
  • upset stomach or nausea
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • muscle tension or aches
  • headaches
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)

These symptoms can vary in intensity and may not occur all at once. Sometimes, they may seem severe enough to affect your daily activities. If you experience these symptoms frequently for 6 months or longer, it might be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

Treating physical symptoms of anxiety

Managing the physical symptoms of anxiety often involves lifestyle adaptations, like getting more physical exercise (if you can), therapy, and possibly medications. Even simple activities, such as doing a jigsaw puzzle or going for a walk, can help distract you from your feelings. But you may need more help to manage your mental health, and that’s totally OK.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the ways therapists help people manage anxiety. They do this by using strategies to change negative thoughts and behaviors.

Alongside CBT, there’s also exposure therapy, which can help people safely face their fears. This therapy aims to lower anxiety both in the mind and body over time.

Medications like antidepressants and anxiolytics may also help.

Medications for anxiety

Medications for anxiety aim to help you manage symptoms and improve your quality of life. Doctors prescribe these medications based on various factors. These include the type and severity of anxiety, as well as any existing medical conditions and other medications you’re taking.

The table below is an overview of common types of anxiety medications:

ClassExamplesUseSide effects
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)sertraline (Zoloft)

escitalopram (Lexapro)

fluoxetine (Prozac)
first-line treatment for long-term (chronic) anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disordernausea, headaches, drowsiness, and sexual dysfunction
serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)venlafaxine (Effexor XR)

duloxetine (Cymbalta)
for GAD, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder; similar to SSRIsnausea, dizziness, and increased blood pressure
benzodiazepinesdiazepam (Valium)

lorazepam (Ativan)

clonazepam (Klonopin)
prescribed for short-term relief of acute anxiety symptomsdrowsiness, confusion, and potential dependency with long-term use
azapironesbuspirone (Buspar)for chronic anxiety, offering an alternative to SSRIs and benzodiazepinesdizziness, headaches, nausea, and a low risk of dependency
beta-blockerspropranolol (Inderal)

atenolol (Tenormin)
off-label for physical symptoms of anxiety, like tremors and rapid heartbeat, particularly in social anxiety situationsfatigue, cold hands and feet, and sleep disturbances

It’s crucial to use these medications under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

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What it is like to see a therapist for anxiety

Working with a therapist for anxiety is a positive step toward understanding and managing your symptoms.

Therapy provides a safe, confidential space to explore your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors with a professional who can guide you toward coping strategies and solutions.

Here’s what you can expect when you visit a therapist:

  • Initial consultation: Your first meeting will focus on your health history, symptoms, lifestyle, and past treatments to customize your therapy.
  • Building trust: It’s important to feel at ease and understood by your therapist, as this relationship is central to your progress.
  • Understanding anxiety: Together, you’ll find the triggers and underlying causes of your anxiety. This aims to help you see things differently and understand why they affect you.
  • Coping skills: You’ll learn techniques such as relaxation methods and mindfulness.
  • Behavioral techniques: A therapist may recommend strategies like exposure therapy to help you face fears gradually and safely.
  • Review and adapt: Therapy involves ongoing evaluation and tweaking strategies to find what works best for you.
  • Practice assignments: To improve your learning, a therapist might recommend activities like journaling, relaxation practices, or facing fears in real-world settings between sessions.

When working with a therapist, keeping an open mind and being honest about your feelings and experiences is important. Remember, it’s OK to try different therapists until you find one that feels like a good fit, as this is crucial to a successful healing process.

Combination therapies

Your mind and body are both important when managing anxiety. When considering treatment, you might find that combining therapies offers the most complete approach to managing your symptoms.

This typically involves therapy, medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle adaptations like getting more physical exercise (if possible) or practicing mindfulness. The goal is to address both the psychological and physiological aspects of anxiety.

Choosing a combined approach might lead to a better outcome. It can help you manage symptoms with medications and teach you helpful ways to cope through therapy.

The quick symptom relief from medication may make your therapy sessions more effective. It can also give you lasting skills to manage anxiety, possibly letting you use less medication over time. 

Summary

While symptoms of anxiety can feel overwhelming and intrusive, it’s important to remember that they’re manageable with the right strategies and support.

Your active participation and engagement in open communication with a healthcare team are key to finding the most effective treatment plan for you.

Whether through therapy, lifestyle changes, medications, or a combination of treatments, you can manage and lower these physical signs of anxiety.

Remember, seeking help and exploring treatment options is a sign of strength, not weakness. And this is the first step toward living a full life that feels right for you.

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