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We all experience stress and anxiety from time to time — it’s a normal human reaction. But one of the more common anxiety myths is that you only experience worry or constantly have anxious thoughts — that it's all in your head.
When dealing with stressful events or situations — a work deadline, relationship troubles or money issues — you might find yourself thinking about your problems more than usual.
And when you’re facing persistent anxiety, these physical symptoms don’t make you feel great, potentially leading to more significant distress and affecting your quality of life.
We’ll cover the most common physical symptoms of anxiety and stress and how to manage them below.
As noted, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. When we’re under stress, our bodies go into “fight-or-flight” mode, a survival response to an external stressor. Once the stress trigger goes away, so does your anxiety.
If feelings of anxiety don’t go away, though, it could be an anxiety disorder.
There can be many causes of an anxiety disorder, from genetics and childhood experiences to environmental factors and medications.
There are various types of anxiety disorders. Some of the most common include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalized anxiety disorder causes excessive or persistent fear, anxiety or ongoing worry. Symptoms can interfere with daily life, and you may experience anxiety for long periods.
Panic disorder. Those with panic disorder have recurring panic attacks (sudden feelings of intense fear), along with certain physical symptoms, even if no clear danger is present.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD develops after someone has been through traumatic events — such as natural disasters, military combat or an assault — and can cause intense psychological distress.
Social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder is the extreme fear of being judged negatively in social situations.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD causes recurring, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Those with OCD perform repetitive behaviors to provide temporary relief from obsessions.
Separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder often happens to children and teens who are extremely worried or have an excessive fear of being separated from their parents or caretakers.
People with anxiety disorders may experience both psychological symptoms and physical symptoms. Psychological symptoms can include:
Persistent or excessive fear or worry
Obsessive thoughts you can’t control
Trouble sleeping (either falling asleep or staying asleep)
Anxiety isn’t only in your head, though. The physical symptoms of anxiety can be just as common — and distressing — as the psychological effects.
The last time you were in a stressful situation, did you start to shake or sweat, even just a little? Did your heart beat faster? If so, you’ve experienced a few of the physical symptoms of anxiety.
These physical reactions are your fight-or-flight response going into action — also known as the autonomic nervous system.
Sometimes called somatic symptoms or somatic complaints, these physical symptoms might be referred to a healthcare provider more often than psychological symptoms.
When you feel anxious, your thoughts and worries may be on repeat in your head. But you can also experience physical symptoms of anxiety and stress, which we listed below.
When you feel anxious, you might suddenly find it difficult to breathe. Rapid breathing is a result of fight-or-flight, the body’s response to stress or sudden perceived danger.
This stress response causes the airway between the nose and lungs to get smaller while your body tries to get more air in case you need to run away.
Research suggests that this shortness of breath — also known as dyspnea — might even result in yawning or sighing as a way to try and get more air into your lungs.
Muscle aches are another common physical symptom of anxiety. Our muscles tense up, under the impression they’re getting ready to run or fight, then relax once the stress passes. Chronic stress or anxiety can cause your muscles to constantly be in a state of tension.
You may also experience headaches if you’re stressed or anxious. Muscle tension in your shoulders, neck or head can cause tension-type and migraine headaches.
Persistent feelings of worry or obsessive thoughts might keep you up at night, making sleep difficult. Insomnia — the inability to fall or stay asleep — and nightmares often occur with anxiety disorders.
Being unable to fall asleep because of anxiety can also lead to sleep anxiety — fear or worry about not being able to fall or stay asleep. Anxiety can make sleep worse, or vice versa, causing a vicious sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden cycle.
The fight-or-flight response not only causes our muscles to tense up but also releases stress hormones that help us survive.
This hormone rush gives you a burst of energy, which can then leave you feeling tired once the stress is gone.
While it might seem like a weird anxiety symptom, stomach pain or issues could also be an indicator of anxiety.
Our stomachs and brains are more connected than we may realize, with millions of neurons in the gut in constant communication with the brain. And just as the stomach can send signals to the brain, an anxious brain can also “talk to” the stomach and cause gastrointestinal issues.
When the body goes into fight-or-flight mode, this can increase body temperature in some people with anxiety, referred to as a psychogenic fever.
Overheating can make running away more difficult, so your body produces sweat to keep it cool.
If you’re dealing with either acute stress (short-term stress) or chronic anxiety, you might feel like your heart is pounding.
Stress and anxiety can lead to the release of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can contribute to increased heart palpitations as well as blood vessels dilating (widening), leading to elevated blood pressure.
The long-term effects of increased heart rate and blood pressure from anxiety and stress can also lead to potential heart attacks or stroke.
Since stress redirects blood flow to your heart and blood vessels, it can lead to blood being drawn away from areas where it needs it less, like your face, feet and hands. Your skin may look pale or your hands and feet might feel cold and clammy.
Being in constant fight-or-flight mode — which may happen with chronic anxiety — can take its toll on your body as well as your mental health.
There are easy ways to manage the physical symptoms, some of which you can start doing today.
Relaxing might seem easier said than done when you’re anxious or stressed out, but it’s also one of the best ways to reduce physical symptoms of anxiety. Incorporating relaxation techniques into your daily life can help with stress management — and it’s relatively easy to do.
One way is to practice mindfulness, which can help you be more present and focus your attention. Continuous mindfulness practice has been found to lower stress levels. Mindfulness-based therapy has also been shown to reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness practices might involve deep breathing techniques, yoga or guided imagery. The "333 rule" is a technique to manage your anxiety symptoms that can help bring you back to the present moment and provide a grounding effect."
If your anxious thoughts are on a constant loop, talking to a therapist can help you develop tools for managing anxiety and reducing physical symptoms.
One of the most research-supported treatments for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT teaches you how to identify unhelpful thoughts and behaviors and instead learn to reframe your thoughts around a stressor.
There are many other types of therapy for anxiety. Our online mental health services can help you figure out which type you’d benefit from most.
Physical activity is another way to reduce physical anxiety symptoms and manage your mental health. Even getting just five minutes of movement a day can offer benefits.
While most help with the psychological symptoms of anxiety, some anxiety medications can help reduce or manage physical symptoms.
Your healthcare provider will prescribe a medication that’s best for your symptoms, situation and overall health.
For example, if you experience physical symptoms in certain situations — due to social anxiety or performance anxiety — your healthcare provider might recommend taking a beta-blocker like propranolol beforehand.
Check out our full guide on medications for anxiety for more information about other options, or talk to your healthcare provider about your physical symptoms.
While anxiety is a mental health condition, the symptoms aren’t just in your head. Physical symptoms can also occur if you struggle with persistent anxiety or constant stress.
Some physical symptoms of anxiety and stress you might experience include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, increased sweating, muscle or headaches, decreased energy, insomnia and stomach issues.
Fortunately, there are several ways to manage these physical symptoms, from mindfulness and meditation to medication and therapy. Consult with a healthcare provider about your symptoms to find the best treatment plan.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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