Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Everyone experiences anxiety. It is completely natural and normal to feel anxious in unexpected or threatening situations. It becomes a problem when we constantly feel anxious or when we experience extreme physical or psychological symptoms.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety manifests itself as a mixture of feelings of worry, fear, dread, apprehension, and distress. People often become anxious when they anticipate a future event or threat, or when they find themselves in an unpleasant ongoing situation. There are both physical symptoms of anxiety and psychological ones, and different people experience anxiety in different ways.

Fight or Flight Response

Anxiety is really an alarm response to a current event. When we are faced with a threatening situation, our body prepares us to either defend ourselves or to run away. This is a natural survival instinct over which we have no control.

Panic Attacks

Sometimes, however, this defense mechanism is activated unnecessarily. An anxiety or panic attack can be caused by an external event which we perceive as threatening but which is not really so. Phobias are an example of this. However, panic attacks can also occur without any obvious external stimulus.

What Causes Anxiety?

Financial and health worries are two of the most common causes of anxiety. Women are more likely to be anxious than men, and if there is a history of anxiety in your family, or you have an anxious personality, it is more likely that you will experience it. Also, if you have another mental health disorder, a chronic or life-threatening illness, have suffered a traumatic life event, or abuse alcohol or drugs.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are several different Anxiety disorders which are all similar, but which have distinct characteristics.

Generalized anxiety disorder, (GAD) is when a person experiences excessive unexplained anxiety for more than six months.

Post-Traumatic stress disorder is the severe anxiety a person experiences after a traumatic event has occurred in their life.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is when someone has recurring thoughts which make them repeat certain actions.

Hypochondriasis is when a person becomes excessively anxious about health issues

Phobia is when someone has an irrational, unshakeable fear of an object, activity, or person.

Separation anxiety is when someone becomes anxious when they are away from their family or their home.

Social anxiety is when someone avoids social situations because they are afraid of being judged or humiliated.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Most of the physical symptoms commonly associated with anxiety have a positive effect in a fight or flight situation. The release of cortisol in the body prepares us to defend ourselves or to run away. An increase in our heart rate sends oxygen around the body so we can hit harder or flee faster. However, when the anxiety is continuous or unfounded, these preparations manifest themselves in negative and unpleasant ways.

Muscle Tension

When we are anxious it is common to feel tension in the muscles of the neck, shoulders, back, and jaw. You may also experience teeth grinding, or a pressure in your legs. Normal tension would pass after the threat has gone, but with an anxiety disorder a relaxation technique, mindfulness, or medication is needed to relax the muscles.


Many people fidget restlessly when they are anxious. Others may experience an uncontrollable tremor, twitches, or shaking. Some people become irritable or edgy.

Increased Heart Rate

An increase in our heart rate can lead to a rise in blood pressure which can provoke changes in body temperature, sweating, and sometimes dizziness. This can be frightening, and we may think that we might be dying, or losing control.

Shortness of Breath

With an increased heart rate, shortness of breath is often experienced. Shallow, rapid breathing can make us feel as if we are suffocating or being smothered and are unable to get enough oxygen.  This can make us feel even more anxious and intensify our symptoms. To bring your breathing under control you must become conscious of every breath and make each one deeper and longer. Putting a drop of Lavender essential oil onto a handkerchief and inhaling deeply can help to achieve this.

Digestive Issues

When anxious, some people may experience a generally unsettled stomach, while others may feel intense nausea. Some can suffer from constipation, others from diarrhea. These digestive issues can disrupt normal daily functioning and can increase anxiety by thinking that they are caused by another medical condition.

Dizziness and Headaches

When we feel constantly anxious our brains are often working overtime, endlessly worrying about countless different things. This overwork can cause a headache, and if we also experience a raised heartbeat and body temperature changes, dizziness often accompanies the pain. Some people may experience numbness or a tingling feeling, particularly in their hands, and others feel that are detached from reality.

Insomnia and Fatigue

Most people with anxiety experience some kind of sleep disturbance. Often, this is in the form of chronic fatigue, listlessness, and a lack of energy, while others will have trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night.

Diagnosis of Anxiety Disorder

To diagnose a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) you must experience at least two of the above physical symptoms either persistently or intensely. Your doctor will probably want to run some tests to rule out any other physical cause for your symptoms. He will also want to discard the possibility of another mental illness before diagnosing an anxiety disorder.

Treatment Options for Anxiety

It is probable that your doctor will suggest a combination of more than one treatment option.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can take place individually or in a group. It encourages people to express their problems, fears, and concerns. Often just talking about things can really help. Also, the therapist can guide you to find solutions to the cause of your anxiety, and you can also learn how to deal better with the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Medications for Anxiety

Doctors sometimes prescribe tranquilizers, beta-blockers, or antidepressants to treat anxiety. These medicines will not cure the cause of your anxiety, but they can help to reduce the physical symptoms that you experience. You should always follow exactly the prescribed dosage and times, and never stop taking the medicine without consulting your doctor. As with all prescribed medicines, some people may experience side-effects, and some medications can be habit-forming.

Lifestyle Changes

Eating a healthy and varied diet and doing regular exercise can help to control your anxiety. As can getting a good night’s sleep in a dark, well-ventilated room, and avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol. Pursuing hobbies or pastimes and getting out and about can help too. Meditation, yoga, and expressing yourself spiritually play an important role in anxiety management. Support from friends and family can also help to reduce both the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety.

Support Groups

Talking to people with similar conditions, either in the flesh or online, can help you to feel less alone and can often provide ideas as to how to deal better with your anxiety. Do not be afraid to reach out to others for help or to share your experiences.

Anxiety can cause a wide range of debilitating physical symptoms if left untreated. If you feel that you are unable to control your anxiety and that it is having a detrimental effect on your life do not hesitate to seek help. Anxiety disorders respond well to treatment but can often go undiagnosed, so discuss your problem with your doctor soon.



author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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