Jennifer Smith
reviewed by Dr Michael Yapko
Thursday, November 5, 2020
Jennifer Smith
Thursday, November 5, 2020

Anxiety and the Body: Physical Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments

Contents

How does it feel to have anxiety? When people talk about anxiety, you might immediately imagine someone who worries excessively. While this is part of the anxiety experience, the effects of anxiety can be seen and felt in the body, too.

Anxiety has a similar effect on the body as prolonged periods of stress. This can cause a range of physical symptoms, including nausea, sleep disturbances, sweating, and heart palpitations. 

If you're experiencing physical symptoms associated with anxiety, there are several treatments and at-home remedies available to help you calm your body and mind. 

Keep reading to learn more about the impact of anxiety on the body and discover several anxiety treatments.

How stress and anxiety affect the body

Anxiety happens when the mind and body experience persistent feelings of stress.

While anxiety and stress are similar, stress is caused by an external trigger, while anxiety is caused by an internal one.

Stress is a normal reaction to nerve-wracking or potentially dangerous situations, like hearing a sudden loud noise or waiting for a job interview to begin.

When this happens, your heart races, your stomach knots, and your palms sweat. You might feel physically out of control, but it's actually a natural response to stressful stimuli. 

During these moments, your body kicks its sympathetic nervous system into gear to prepare you to manage (or escape!) the stressful event. 

This is also known as the flight-or-fight response, a rapid process that fuels the body with chemicals and hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) to give you a sudden burst of energy.

However, when the body's response to stress doesn't go away after a situation has passed, or if it appears without a stressful event occurring, then you may be experiencing anxiety. 

For people with anxiety, the body reacts to internal triggers (like worries) as if a stressful or dangerous event is taking place which can lead to ongoing physical symptoms.

Types of anxiety disorders

Around one-third of the population will be affected by an anxiety disorder during their lifetime, making it the most common mental health disorder globally. 

While many people with anxiety say it feels like intense unease or panic, not everyone will experience anxiety in the same way.

There are several types of anxiety disorders that affect both the mind and the body, including:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves persistent and excessive worrying that interferes with your daily life. For a GAD diagnosis, excessive worrying must have occurred for over six months. Specific physical symptoms of GAD can include muscle tension and restlessness. 

Panic Disorder 

People with panic disorders experience recurring and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is a period of sudden, intense fear and frightening physical symptoms, such as sweating, heart palpitations, shaking, and shortness of breath.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD includes obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, or both. The physical effects of OCD are unique to each individual's experience. However, ODC is often associated with obsessive, and sometimes damaging, physical rituals, like hand-washing, or motor tics (sudden, brief, repetitive movements), like blinking or head or shoulder jerking.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can develop in people who have experienced a shocking, frightening, or dangerous event. While physical and emotional reactions vary, many people experience the bodily symptoms of stress (such as a racing heart or sweating) during flashbacks. Additionally, a 2014 study identified that people with PTSD often present to their doctor with headaches and pain. 

Social Anxiety Disorder

This type of social anxiety disorder stems from fear of potential embarrassment when in social situations. Social anxiety can cause a range of physical symptoms, such as blushing, sweating, or shaking. Children may be more likely to 'freeze up' or cry because of social anxiety. 

Phobias

Phobias are intense, persistent, and irrational fears of things that are of little or no actual danger. The fear can be of something specific, like arachnophobia (fear of spiders), or broad, like agoraphobia (the fear of being in public places). Physical phobia symptoms can include tremors, palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea.

Physical symptoms of anxiety 

While the expression of physical symptoms can be unique to different anxiety disorders, there are a range of general symptoms that people with anxiety may notice in their body.


Typical physical anxiety symptoms include:

Stomach pains and diarrhea

Thanks to the brain-gut axis connection, diarrhea and stomach pain are common responses to stress hormones and blood rapidly moving away from the stomach to oxygenate the brain. Additionally, the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, can increase the secretion of stomach acid, which can lead to stomach pain, nausea, and—in extreme cases—stomach ulcers.

If you're experiencing frequent, long-term gut problems, talk to your doctor about being assessed for IBS, as this condition can be exacerbated by anxiety. 

Additionally, if anxiety and gut symptoms (like diarrhea, pain, or nausea) are causing you trouble, you may also want to look into helpful management tools like at-home hypnotherapy for IBS.

Headaches

Anxiety and stress can cause headaches. The most common type of headache associated with stress is a tension headache. These can be due to tense muscles in the head and jaw, resulting in clenching and grinding of the teeth. 

Sweating

During a moment of panic or stress, adrenaline and cortisol are released, resulting in an increased heart rate and body temperature, causing you to sweat. A 2002 study also showed a link between excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) and people with social anxiety disorders.

Insomnia

It has been estimated that about 60% to 70% of people with General Anxiety Disorders (GAD) struggle with insomnia. 

In addition to making people feel tired during the day, sleep disorders like insomnia can seriously affect the body and can contribute to heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.

Dizziness 

Anxiety dizziness is most commonly attributed to disruptions of the vestibular system, (workings of the inner ear that controls balance). When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, high levels of cortisol can interfere with the correct functioning of the vestibular system, resulting in a feeling of vertigo.

Heart palpitations

When you're anxious, your heart is working double-time to pump oxygenated blood around your body to assist you in the perceived ‘emergency’. 

Usually, heart palpitations caused by anxiety are short-lived and harmless. However, if you experience heart palpitations accompanied by chest pressure/pain, pain that radiates to the arm, jaw, or shoulder blades, or pain that gets worse over time, you should seek immediate medical attention. 

Dry mouth

A recent study showed that anxiety, stress, and depression can significantly reduce your salivary flow rate and increase your experience of xerostomia (dry mouth).

Numbness/pins and needles 

Typically, pins and needles or numbness in the hands and feet associated with anxiety are linked to hyperventilation. Rapid breathing is a common symptom of anxiety that can cause an imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the blood, which may result in tingling feeling or numbness.

Trembling or shaking

During the flight-or-fight response, your body is flooded with epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine which work together to increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar to give you an energy boost. These complex bodily processes, in addition to blood quickly redirecting towards twitching muscles, can cause you to shake or tremble.

Muscle aches

Stress causes muscles to tense up to protect us from injury when our brain perceives danger. Normally, these muscles will release and soften again when you relax, however in people with anxiety, muscles may remain tense for extended periods leading to muscle aches.

Potentially more illnesses, like colds and sore throats

Although you might not feel this symptom immediately, anxiety can weaken the immune system over time.

A body under constant stress may struggle to return to a healthy, relaxed, and normal functioning state. During the flight-or-fight response, your system is fueled with hormones to keep you moving faster, stronger, and for longer, but this can be an exhausting process if it occurs too regularly. 

Once your immune system is weakened, you may become more susceptible to infections and illnesses.

Managing anxiety in the body and mind

Both the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety are treatable and many people are able to find relief and improve their quality of life.

Some people may see improvements within a few weeks of treatment, whereas it may take longer for others, especially if they are struggling with multiple conditions or complex anxiety issues.

Some common treatments for anxiety include: 

Psychological treatments

Psychological treatments (sometimes known as therapy, or talk therapy) can get you back in control of the physical and mental symptoms associated with anxiety.

There are many types of therapies available that can help alleviate symptoms, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavior therapy, counseling, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). 

Because different types of therapy may be better suited to specific anxiety disorders, it's a good idea to consult with a doctor to see which treatment might work best for you.  

Hypnotherapy for anxiety

Compelling scientific research suggests that hypnotherapy (a therapy-focused form of hypnosis) can be a cost-effective, non-addictive, and generally safe alternative to medication for the treatment of anxiety-related conditions.

A meta-analysis of 18 studies showed that the effects of Cognitive Behavioral Hypnotherapy enhanced treatment outcomes and long-term remission by 70% compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy alone.
Hypnotherapy apps for mental health, like Mindset, can help people access high-quality at-home hypnotherapy at a more accessible price than in-person sessions. 

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Diet and Exercise

Eating a balanced diet of nutrient-dense foods not only helps to fuel your body but also helps to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Similarly, various studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can help improve anxiety symptoms and can lower your nervous systems' anxiety reactivity (how your body reacts to stress).

Medications

While therapy has been proven to improve anxiety, if your symptoms are severe or persist, then it might be a good time to talk to your doctor about medical treatments too. 

Some common medical treatments for anxiety include:

  • Antidepressants: antidepressant medications may help to manage anxiety by correcting the imbalance of chemical messages between nerve cells in the brain.

  • Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines may help people relax but they are not recommended as a long-term solution as they can have side-effects and are addictive. 

Additionally, benzodiazepines are problematic for people with anxiety, as this medication has been associated with adverse effects that include panic attacks, phobias, and social avoidance.

When to speak to a doctor 

Managing the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety isn't easy, but you don't have to go it alone. If your anxiety is unmanageable or affecting your quality of life, a doctor or mental health professional can help you to feel better.

Some conditions, such as hyperthyroidism or heart disease, may mimic some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, so if you're noticing an increase in anxiety symptoms it's a good idea to talk to a professional to get the right diagnosis.

The Wrap Up 

Anxiety doesn't just live in the mind, it can affect the body too. People with anxiety can experience many physical symptoms, including nausea, headaches, muscle pains, and sleep disturbances. Finding the right way to manage anxiety is an important step towards feeling better. Therapy, exercise, diet changes, and medication have all proven to help reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life. Remember to check in with your doctor, they can help you to access treatments and can assist you in weighing the benefits of anxiety medications and alternative treatment plans. 

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Manage feelings of anxiety, stress & depression

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Our Sources

Mindset Health only uses high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed research, to support our articles. We work with experts to ensure our content is helpful, accurate and trustworthy.

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