Anxiety isn’t only in your head
If you have anxiety, you might frequently feel worried, nervous, or afraid about ordinary events. These feelings can be upsetting and difficult to manage. They can also make daily life a challenge.
Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms. Think about a time when you felt anxious. Maybe your hands were sweaty or your legs were shaky. Your heart rate might have sped up. You could have felt sick to your stomach.
You might have linked these symptoms to your nervousness. But maybe you weren’t sure why you felt unwell.
Most people experience anxiety on occasion. Anxiety can be serious or turn into a disorder if it lasts for a long time, causes significant distress, or interferes with your life in other ways.
Types of anxiety include:
- panic disorders
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- separation anxiety
- social anxiety
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Some types of anxiety have unique symptoms specific to the fears linked to the anxiety. In general, though, anxiety disorders share many physical symptoms.
Read on to learn more about anxiety’s physical symptoms and how they can affect you.
How anxiety affects your body
Anxiety can have physical symptoms that affect health and daily life.
Physical symptoms of anxiety
- stomach pain, nausea, or digestive trouble
- insomnia or other sleep issues (waking up frequently, for example)
- weakness or fatigue
- rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- pounding heart or increased heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- muscle tension or pain
Specific types of anxiety might have additional physical symptoms.
If you’re having a panic attack, you might:
- fear that you’re going to die
- have trouble breathing or feel as if you’re choking
- have numb or tingling sensations in parts of your body
- have chest pain
- feel lightheaded, dizzy, or as if you might pass out
- feel overheated or have chills
Anxiety, the body’s response to stress, is how your body alerts you to threats and helps you get ready to deal with them. This is called the fight-or-flight response.
When your body responds to danger, you breathe rapidly because your lungs are trying to move more oxygen through your body in case you need to escape. This can make you feel as if you’re not getting enough air, which could trigger further anxiety or panic.
Your body isn’t meant to always be on alert. Being in constant fight-or-flight mode, which can happen with chronic anxiety, can have negative and serious effects on your body.
Tensed muscles may prepare you to get away from danger quickly, but muscles that are constantly tense can result in pain, tension headaches, and migraines.
The hormones adrenalin and cortisol are responsible for increased heartbeat and breathing, which can help when facing a threat. But these hormones also affect digestion and blood sugar.
If you’re often stressed or anxious, frequently releasing these hormones can have long-term health effects. Your digestion may also change in response.
Is it anxiety?
If your symptoms affect your emotional health or make everyday life difficult, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. Your primary care provider can rule out medical issues that cause the same symptoms.
If your physical symptoms have no medical cause, you could have anxiety. A mental health professional can diagnose anxiety and other mental health conditions.
While there’s no medical test for anxiety, there are screening tools a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or counselor may use to help determine if you have anxiety.
A mental health professional will ask you about all of your symptoms, physical and emotional, to determine whether you have an anxiety disorder. They’ll also want to know how long you’ve had symptoms and if they’ve increased in severity or were triggered by a specific event.
There are important facts to share with your therapist:
- Are you using drugs or other substances?
- Have you been hurting yourself or are you having thoughts of hurting yourself or others?
Either of these things can impact diagnosis and treatment. Many people have anxiety along with another mental health condition, such as depression. Telling your therapist about all of your symptoms can help you get the most accurate diagnosis and most helpful treatment.
Getting help for anxiety
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), you may be at increased risk for physical health problems if you have anxiety.
A 2015 study of 989 adults found that anxiety symptoms were associated with ulcers. The same study also found that as anxiety and depression symptoms increased, it became more likely a person would have:
- heart problems
- vision problems
- back problems
Research has further linked asthma and anxiety. A 2016 study suggested that either asthma or anxiety can cause or result from the other.
Research has also suggested that anxiety is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke, though it hasn’t been determined that anxiety is a specific risk factor for these conditions.
A 2017 study of older adults found that anxiety was associated with heart disease. Having both anxiety and depression was linked to an increase in vision problems, stomach problems, and asthma, among other issues.
Because anxiety can have such a serious impact on health, it’s important to get help. Mild anxiety may go away on its own or after the event causing the anxiety is over, but chronic anxiety often persists and may get worse.
If you aren’t sure how to find a therapist, you can ask your primary care provider for a referral.
Therapist directories can also help you locate a therapist in your area. If you think you have anxiety, you can look for providers who specialize in anxiety treatment.
Finding Help For Anxiety
- ADAA Online Support Group
- Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741
- SAMHSA: Help finding treatment in your area
- ADAA therapist directory
Treatment for physical symptoms of anxiety
Treatment for anxiety depends on what symptoms you have and how severe they are.
Therapy and medication are the two main treatments for anxiety. If you experience physical symptoms, talk therapy or medication that improves your anxiety often leads to improvement of these symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and effective therapy options for anxiety.
You may find that therapy on its own is helpful. But if your symptoms don’t improve, anxiety medication is an option you can discuss with a psychiatrist.
You can also take action on your own to address anxiety symptoms.
Self-Care For Anxiety:
- Be physically active, if you’re able. Exercise can help reduce stress and improve physical health. If you can’t be active, try sitting outside every day. Research increasingly shows that nature can benefit mental health.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Any of these can make anxiety worse.
- Try relaxation techniques. Guided imagery and deep breathing are two practices that can help your body relax. Meditation and yoga can also benefit you. These techniques are considered safe, but it is possible to experience increased anxiety as a result.
- Prioritize sleep. Sleep issues often accompany anxiety. Try to get as much sleep as you can. Feeling rested can help you cope with anxiety symptoms. Getting more sleep could also reduce symptoms.
The bottom line
Persistent fear and worry are fairly well-known anxiety symptoms, but you may be less familiar with anxiety’s physical symptoms. You may be unaware what you’re experiencing is anxiety.
Untreated anxiety can have long-term effects for all areas of health. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms persist or cause difficulty for you at work or school, or in your relationships.
There’s no cure for anxiety, but treatment, which often includes a combination of therapy and medication, is often very helpful at reducing symptoms.