If you experience anxiety every now and then or even on a regular basis, you’re probably familiar with the symptoms it brings.
You know - the overthinking, the worrying, the fear of the unknown.
Anxiety Is A Double-Edged Sword
The good news is that anxiety itself isn’t a bad thing. Feeling anxious is a perfectly normal and healthy way that humans interact with our environment. Anxiety helps us prepares our body and mind to deal effectively with potentially stressful situations. This can include heading to your first day at a new job, a final exam or asking someone out on a date.
However, if you find that you’re experiencing anxiety that is too much, a good way to gauge it is asking yourself these questions:
1. Was the situation stressful i.e. is the level of my anxiety justified?
2. How often does it happen?
3. How long does it last? (minutes, hours or days)
Anxiety may interfere with work/school and your personal life. In other words, it is getting in the way of your day to day activities or ADL's as its called in my world.
The Anxious Response
If you read the ultimate guide to anxiety, we break down an anxiety response into 3 parts that interact with one another:
1. Cognitive (in the mind): attention shifts to the source of the threat, causing feelings of worry
2. Physical (in the body): increased heart rate, tense muscles, shallow breathing, nausea, dizziness
3. Behavioural: engaging in behaviours that protect against anxiety (i.e. avoiding certain tasks, places, people and situations)
For this post, we’ll be focusing on the physical symptoms, including some things you may have not have realized were related to anxiety.
Panic Attacks - The Most Obvious Physical Symptom of Anxiety
If we are going to talk about the physical side effects of anxiety, let's start with anxiety's most signature move - panic attacks.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is your fight-flight-freeze (FFF) system in its strongest form. This system is responsible for keeping us out of danger in response to a threatening situation.
During a panic attack, you’ll experience a rush of anxiety symptoms, all at once, which can be super scary. You may experience some or many of the following symptoms:
Chills or hot flashes
Distress and fear
Even though it feels like forever, these symptoms of a panic attack typically peak around 10 minutes, so they don’t last very long.
But many times even after the panic attack has passed, you can continue to experience symptoms of anxiety. What do you do then?
It Ain't Over Til It's Over
So you just had a panic attack - that was rough. But now it's over, and you don't have to worry about any other physical symptoms...right?
Unfortunately, that's not the case. Anxiety is one kind of mental illness that can express itself in a non-specific manner. This means that you may not explicitly feel anxious or stressed or nervous, but instead, you may express it through physical complaints.
You may have trouble sleeping or eating, which are the most common symptoms of many mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.
It's important to be aware of the more subtle and less obvious physical symptoms of anxiety. They can vary, depending on personal, cultural and familial circumstances. These symptoms can easily be overlooked or connected to a physical cause rather than a mental illness.
For instance, if you suffer from regular neck and shoulder pain, it may be seen as a symptom of muscle strain or arthritis. In reality, it could be a side effect of anxiety, as you may be unconsciously tensing your muscles, with your neck and shoulders bearing the brunt of it.
As we know, left untreated, anxiety can and will become worse over time.
Short-Term Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
All the physical symptoms of anxiety you experience can be traced back to your brain and the way it responds when you’re stressed.
When your brain activates the FFF system, it releases hormones to prepare your body to combat a threat. These hormones affect many muscles and organs throughout your body.
It redirects energy and resources from certain body parts to others, in order to produce a more efficient response to that stressor in your environment.
When the stressor has passed, your bodily functions return back to normal. However, if you have anxiety, your brain and body may have a harder time doing this.
So even when you're not in a stressful situation, you may experience the following physical symptoms:
Body Pain - Headaches, Neck Pain, Back Pain Or Restless Limbs
Stomach Problems - Stomach Aches, Indigestion, Diarrhea, Gas
Shortness Of Breath, Chest Pain Or Increased Heart Rate
if you’re having trouble sleeping on a regular basis, this may be a side effect of your anxiety. Furthermore, your sleeplessness could be making your anxiety worse.
Here are 7 effective ways to manage your anxiety related insomnia.
Body Pain - Headaches, neck pain, back pain or restless limbs
You may not even realize it but anxiety could be causing severe muscle tension throughout your body. Your body is over-preparing itself to spring into action, and this constant preparedness can take a toll on your muscles. This can cause pains anywhere from your head to your legs
Stomach problems - stomach aches, indigestion, diarrhea, gas
Our body sees digestion as a non-essential function in times of stress (tell that to the half-digested burger sitting in my stomach!). But this slow-down in activity leads to you feeling uneasy and sick.
Even if you’re not in an anxious situation, it can take time for your stomach to receive the message from your brain. This may lead to stomach aches and indigestion even when you're not anxious.
Do you feel the need to pee in anxious situations, or even when you're not? You didn't even drink that much water, so what gives? Again, you can blame it on your hormonal response to anxiety.
Emptying the bladder prepares your body to fight against any threat (even if there isn't one), but this can be totally annoying when it occurs frequently.
Shortness of breath, chest pain or increased heart rate
Your body is working overtime to pump blood and oxygen to the big muscles. This is how the body prepares to react to a potentially dangerous situation.
This leads to trouble breathing or heart palpitations, even when you don't feel particularly stressed.
Check out this video to practice ''box breathing'' to help relieve muscle tension in the body.
Box breathing is one of my favorite grounding strategies. Its quick, easy and can be done anywhere and as many times as needed.
Pro tip: I personally dab some peppermint halo from Saje under my nose as I inhale and exhale. And each time it works like a charm for me!
Oh gosh. This one hits home for me
In times of stress, your body causes you to not only sweat but also smell kinda gross. Sometimes you may not even notice you’re anxious until you've sweat through your t-shirt!
Or, you may sweat more overall, regardless of the temperature or physical activity, because your body didn't get the message to chill out.
If you are anything like me and constantly find yourself with clammy hands, try this - rub some baby powder on your hands, this will ''absorb'' the sweat and make it less clammy.
Long-Term Physical Illness and Anxiety
If untreated, the short-term physical symptoms of anxiety can lead to more severe and long-term illnesses that may be more difficult to manage.
Here are some of the long term physical issues one can develop due to ongoing anxiety:
Gastrointestinal (GI) Issues
Anxiety can stir up constant stomach aches and frequent trips to the bathroom. If you ignore these symptoms, they may not go away any time soon, leading to more chronic GI problems, including ulcers and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
IBS is something I hear very commonly in sessions, especially with my clients who have a challenging time managing their anxiety.
This is caused, in part, due to the relationship between the brain and gut, which can be unbalanced when a person has an anxiety disorder. The frequent release of stress hormones can interfere with the healthy gut bacteria needed to keep your system balanced, causing different kinds of uncomfortable issues.
And this is why, sometimes it feels like you will sh*t yourself if you dont rush to the bathroom right away, even if you just went few minutes ago.
Type II Diabetes
Once again, greater levels of anxiety can lead to hormonal issues that have a range of effects.
In this case, chronic stress can interfere with the liver's ability to balance sugar levels in the blood. This imbalance can lead to higher levels of blood sugar, potentially causing a person to develop type II diabetes.
Furthermore, anxiety and sugar consumption have a complicated relationship on their own. Check out our article on sugar and anxiety to learn more about the vicious cycle within this relationship.
It turns out that short-term symptoms of anxiety, like increased heart rate, can actually have serious, long-term consequences.
Certain types of anxiety disorders (such as phobias) have been associated with an increased risk of having a heart attack.
Furthermore, experiencing frequent panic attacks is associated with a greater risk of stroke or any coronary event.
Acute respiratory symptoms of anxiety such as shortness of breath and chest pain can lead to illnesses like asthma, where the air isn’t able to flow freely through airways into the lungs.
Research has found that anxiety and asthma have a cyclical relationship. Feeling particularly stressed out or anxious can trigger an asthma attack, and the symptoms of asthma (shortness of breath, trouble breathing) can further trigger more anxiety symptoms.
Additionally, anxiety has been shown to exacerbate certain respiratory disorders related to the lungs.
Long-term anxiety can cause a variety of reproductive issues. For one, it can interfere with libido in both men and women.
In men, anxiety can also influence the production of testosterone, leading to possible erectile dysfunction or impotence.
In women, anxiety can make pre-menstrual symptoms worse, causing more painful and heavier periods, or missed periods. It may also decrease a woman’s chance of getting pregnant.
Immune System Dysfunction
You’re probably thinking “wait, Sarah, you’re trying to tell me that all my anxiety is making me physically sick?" And, yeah, it probably is. Think about it – if you’re continuously anxious and stressed out, your body itself is really taking a toll.
Remember the FFF system? Being constantly on edge and having your body regularly release stress hormones during this response is actually harmful to your health.
Not only will you get sick more easily and frequently, but you will also have a harder time recovering as your body’s ability to fight against infections and disease is compromised.
Physical symptoms of anxiety in a nutshell
5 Tips to Manage Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
If you’re able to recognize that your physical pain may be related to your anxiety, you’ve already completed the first and most difficult step – awareness.
Once you’re aware of the underlying cause of these symptoms, try these 5 tips to help manage the physical symptoms of anxiety:
1. Exercise and/or spending time outside
Being active on a regular basis can greatly improve your mental health. Your brain releases “feel-good” chemicals throughout your body, which reduce anxiety levels and overall, just make you feel good.
If going to the gym feels too much, try spending some time outside, getting fresh air. Research shows that spending time in nature can actually improve your well-being.
Incorporating small changes in your day to day activities will make it more sustainable. For instance, if you live on floor 7, get off at floor 6 and take the stairs one floor up. Next week, get off at floor 5.
Another thing I often suggest is to just try stretches in your room. I personally follow this quick 15-minute video to stretch and I always feel much better after. Best part - you don't need any equipment.
2. Avoid coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol
Coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol all work to increase your anxiety levels by increasing your physical symptoms (jittery limbs, insomnia and headaches).
Often times when we feel anxious, we usually want to go for the carbs, sugars and or booze. Sugar can play a negative role in managing your anxiety. So can coffee.
Try reducing the coffee, booze, and cigarettes especially on the days you feel anxious as it will typically worsen your mood/symptoms.
3. Practice relaxation techniques
Mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and/or deep breathing are all techniques you can use to manage your anxiety symptoms, including physical discomfort. Experiment and find out what works best for you!
The box breathing activity you did above is a is a deep breathing technique that helps calm the nerves.
I will do a detailed post to review some easy simple and effective relaxation techniques soon!
4. Get a good night’s sleep
For most of us, this is easier said than done. But making sure you are getting a good night's rest will not only improve your mental health, but it can also improve your physical well-being.
Here are 7 effective ways that will help you sleep better if you have anxiety.
5. Seek professional help
Every now and then, we all need a little outside help. Even if your physical discomfort doesn’t seem like a big deal, talking to a professional about the underlying cause may give you some relief.
Talk therapy is real and it works wonders!
The Body and Mind - Two Sides of the Same Coin
Aches and pains are the body’s way of communicating its needs to us – so it’s probably a good idea to listen.
In some cases, it may be trying to tell us that our mental health needs some TLC.
As the body and mind are interconnected, they both depend on each other. Managing the symptoms of one will only benefit the other.
These changes will not happen overnight. Start small, your body needs time to adjust. Try practicing one skill per week, before moving to the next.
Rule of life: Always take small steps to make sustainable changes.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember our body’s main purpose is to help us survive.
So go easy on yourself, there are lots of others who will make things difficult for you.
Do you experience any symptoms that I have not mentioned here?
Leave a comment, or flip me an email, I would love to hear from you.
Until next time!