No, It’s Not In Your Head: Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
You’ve probably experienced some of the physical symptoms of anxiety—you’ve felt your heart racing before a class presentation or gotten the nervous sweats before a first date. But most people don’t realize how anxiety manifests physically in an anxiety disorder beyond day-to-day feelings of anxiety. When it comes to anxiety disorders, we tend to focus less on the physical symptoms and more on the overwhelming psychological worry and fear.
If you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s essential to recognize and understand the physical symptoms. If you don’t know what you’re dealing with, it can be challenging to seek proper treatment.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is often used as an umbrella term for a range of negative feelings, including fear, worry, and stress. Some people use the term to describe occasional anxiety and stress, but they can cope and move on from this anxiousness without mental health treatment. Other times, anxiety can feel overwhelming. When feelings of anxiety are persistent, intense, and interfere with your daily life, you may have a diagnosable mental health condition known as an anxiety disorder.
Some common types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): People with GAD experience immense, disproportionate fear toward circumstances and events.
- Social anxiety disorder (social anxiety/social phobia): People with social anxiety disorder experience fear and worry when faced with social interactions and social situations.
- Panic disorder: People with panic disorder have repeated panic attacks involving uncontrollable fear and intense psychological distress. Panic attacks can interfere with daily life to the point that people worry about having panic attacks and avoid potential triggers.
- Phobias: People with specific phobias experience excessive anxiety toward a particular object or situation, which may cause them to avoid ordinary circumstances. For example, agoraphobia, which is characterized by an intense fear of situations where there is no “escape,“ can make it hard to leave the house.
- Separation anxiety disorder: People with separation anxiety disorder become intensely worried at the thought of being separated from their home and/or people with whom they have a strong emotional attachment.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD experience persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). People with OCD feel like performing compulsions helps them avoid psychological distress or prevents something bad from happening.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): People experience PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident or losing a loved one. PTSD usually involves an intense physical and emotional response, such as nightmares, and self-destructive behavior, such as substance abuse.
What causes the physical symptoms of anxiety?
Whether you’re experiencing occasional anxiety or a diagnosable anxiety disorder, anxiety can manifest in the body in different ways. By releasing stress hormones, anxiety can affect almost every system of the body. But what causes physical symptoms?
The body’s fight-or-flight response is responsible for the physical symptoms of anxiety. Your fight-or-flight response is supposed to help you survive an immediate threat by escaping or fighting it off. If you have anxiety, your fear and worry trigger the fight-or-flight response, activating your sympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary breathing and heart rate. This activation leads the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, contributing to anxiety’s physical symptoms.
Anxiety can manifest in the following ways:
Your heart is racing.
A racing heartbeat is a classic symptom of anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Research shows that stress hormones like adrenaline can cause receptors in the heart to speed up your heart rate. While an increased heart rate allows your heart to pump more blood to combat a potential threat, your heartbeat can further contribute to your anxiety.
You feel short of breath.
When the body’s stress response boosts how quickly you’re sending blood around the body, your breathing might increase to provide you with more oxygen.
However, shortness of breath—also known as hyperventilation—can enhance physical anxiety symptoms, according to the United States National Library of Medicine.
Your muscles ache.
Your muscles tense up as part of the body’s stress response, and tensing your body for prolonged periods can cause chronic pain. According to the American Psychological Association, people with anxiety often report tightness in their back, neck, or shoulders. You might also clench your jaw or experience constant headaches.
Your stomach hurts.
Anxiety can affect the gastrointestinal system, and people with anxiety may notice general stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and other types of digestive problems.
Anxiety-induced lifestyle choices, such as lack of physical activity or poor nutrition, can further affect digestion.
You constantly feel tired.
Persistent feelings of fatigue and exhaustion are common signs of anxiety. The body’s fight-or-flight response can keep you on high alert, which can be mentally and physically draining.
People with anxiety might also find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep or experience unsatisfying sleep. Elevated stress hormone levels and racing thoughts can make it harder to fall asleep because your body might not relax enough to rest. Sleep issues such as insomnia can also exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
You’re always sick.
Because the immune system doesn’t function as well when the body’s fight-or-flight response is activated for a long time, people with anxiety tend to get sick more often. High anxiety can make you more susceptible to issues like the common cold. Several other factors are also involved, including how strong your immune system is in general and your hygiene habits.
When do physical symptoms signal a panic attack?
Panic attacks include physical anxiety symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, and a face heart rate. However, unlike anxiety, panic attacks cause an extreme sensation of fear and worry that arises out of nowhere. Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), panic attacks include at least four of the following symptoms:
- Heart palpitations or an accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or feelings of choking
- Chest pain
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Chills or heat sensations
- Numbness or tingling
- Feelings of derealization or depersonalization
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
For people who suffer from severe panic attacks, the physical symptoms may resemble those of a heart attack. If you’ve never had a panic attack and you’re experiencing chest pain and other physical anxiety symptoms, seek immediate help.
Treatment Options for Anxiety
Whether you’re experiencing occasional anxiety or frequent panic attacks, mental health treatment can help with anxiety disorders. Although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Over time, chronic anxiety can have a severe impact on your physical health. But even if anxiety symptoms don’t interfere with daily activities, it never hurts to check in with your therapist or healthcare provider.
The best course of treatment will depend on your specific anxiety symptoms, but approaches to treatment include:
- Therapy: Talk therapy is often an essential component of treatment. Forms of psychotherapy for anxiety, such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy, help retrain the brain’s anxious thoughts. Working with a licensed therapist, social worker, psychologist, or mental health professional in a group therapy or individual therapy setting can help you find new ways to cope with anxiety and manage symptoms.
- Medications: In some cases, healthcare providers also prescribe medications to help individuals manage the symptoms of anxiety disorder, as well as co-occurring mental illnesses, such as mood disorders like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
- Check-ups: Because anxiety symptoms can resemble medical conditions like heart disease, it’s important to schedule regular check-ups with your healthcare professional to rule out underlying conditions.
- Support groups: Sometimes, it can feel challenging to open up to a close friend or family member about your anxiety. Joining a support group provides the opportunity to share feelings and experiences in a confidential, safe space. Support groups allow you to connect with other group members facing similar issues while fostering social skills and interpersonal relationships.
- Self-care: Although psychotherapy is the most effective way to treat anxiety, therapy isn’t always accessible. In that case, it can be helpful to practice self-care to manage your anxiety symptoms. Practicing deep breathing techniques, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining regular sleep patterns can help you manage your symptoms and improve your mental state.
Finding the Right Therapist
Professional help can be a powerful tool in treating the physical symptoms of anxiety. Still, even the best therapist won’t be much of a service if you don’t feel comfortable opening up to them. Because your therapeutic relationship can significantly affect your mental health treatment’s success, it’s crucial to find a therapist that matches your personal preferences and requirements.
To find a mental health professional, consider searching for an online therapist at the Therapy Group of NYC. We know that anxiety can feel overwhelming to the point that it feels uncontrollable. With proper treatment, it’s possible to manage your anxiety symptoms, take control of your mental health, and live a fulfilling life.