Physical symptoms of anxiety and stress are arguably equally as uncomfortable (or more difficult) than the psychological aspects. In many cases anxiety starts as a response or emotion that is felt in the body and eventually spreads. For example, if you are faced with a pack of hungry wolves and are in the woods alone without any help, you will feel “fear” – an emotion synonymous with anxiety.
Upon seeing the pack of hungry wolves, you immediately become fearful: your palms may sweat, your pupils dilate, and you experience a surge of adrenaline. The surge of adrenaline is meant to serve a specific purpose: to ensure survival when faced with a predator, danger, or other threat. Although people don’t often have to evade packs of hungry wolves these days, the same “fight-or-flight” response can be triggered from a demanding boss, getting into a car accident, a relationship break up, and numerous other life circumstances.
Most people will experience some sort of anxiety in their lives. In many cases some anxiety is a healthy emotion, it protects us from danger and helps us deal with environmental threats. However, in some cases the anxiety from a dangerous encounter can linger long after the event and become problematic, leading to unwanted physical symptoms.
What causes the physical symptoms of anxiety or stress?
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for causing most physical symptoms associated with anxiety. It is the sympathetic nervous system which triggers a fight-or-flight response in our body and increases our overall level of arousal. Once activated, it often stays active until some sort of intervention from the parasympathetic nervous system overrides its response.
Assuming the sympathetic nervous system stays active, it can have an influence on hormones (e.g. cortisol levels), production of adrenaline, and can change activity in the brain, increasing the amount of beta waves. Additionally if there was a specific stimulus that triggered your anxiety, you may react to it with physical panic anytime you are exposed to it in the future.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress: List of Possibilities
Below is a list of possible physical symptoms that you may experience when you feel anxious. Understand that you may not experience every symptom on this list and that symptoms will vary based on severity of anxiety, type of anxiety, and whether you are in the process of treating your anxiety.
- Adrenaline rush: Many people will note that when they first experience anxiety, they can feel adrenaline coursing throughout their body. Adrenaline is produced by the adrenal glands, located above your kidneys. When anxiety becomes very extreme, you may experience constant adrenaline rushes, and in some cases could develop adrenaline addiction.
- Body aches: When you become stressed or highly anxious, you may notice that your body starts to ache. It may ache in routine places or unexpected ones. Most people report significant aches throughout their head as well as their chest, but you may feel aches in other places as well such as arms and legs.
- Body temperature changes: You may also notice that your body temperature slightly increases or decreases when you feel very anxious. This is a physical symptom that has been documented. Although you probably will not experience a full-blown fever or significant decrease, slight changes are possible.
- Chest pain: Some people report extreme chest pain when they get anxious. Experiencing chest tightness and pain are hallmarks of anxiety. Unfortunately this can lead some people to believe that they are going to have a heart attack. The combination of chest tightness and palpitations are very similar signs to an actual heart attack; these are very uncomfortable.
- Choking sensation: In cases of extreme panic, you may experience a choking sensation in your throat. You may be unable to properly breathe (inhale / exhale) as well as swallow. This is due to the fact that your body is reacting to a high level of arousal; some people experience choking.
- Chills: For certain individuals, instead of getting hot flashes, they feel chilled all the time. You may notice increase in body chills and/or feeling cold when everyone else is fine with the temperature. The chills can come in sudden waves and/or can increase based on the intensity of your anxiety.
- Cramps: It is common to experience cramps throughout the body when you have anxiety. Muscle cramps are usually due to increased tension throughout the body. When you become highly stimulated, your muscle tension naturally increases which can lead to cramping. Many people report stomach cramps, but these can occur anywhere in the body.
- Diarrhea: It is very common for people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) to have comorbid anxiety and psychiatric disorders. There is a clear link between loose bowels and experiencing anxiety. For some people, their body reacts to the increased anxiety with digestive and bowel changes, leading to diarrhea.
- Digestive changes: As was already mentioned, the digestive tract is affected when you have anxiety. Specifically the process of “peristalis” is affected when a person becomes anxious. Peristalis, or relaxation and contraction of digestive tract muscles, becomes inhibited when experiencing anxiety.
- Dizziness: One of the most common symptoms to experience with anxiety is that of dizziness. You may get dizzy for no apparent reason, and believe that there is some hidden underlying cause. In reality, feeling dizzy or vertigo sensations can be caused by panic and high levels of arousal.
- Dry mouth: Did your mouth suddenly become extremely dry after you started experiencing anxiety? Although dry mouth is a common antidepressant side effect, it can also be caused directly by anxiety. It is associated with lack of saliva and moisture throughout the mouth. It isn’t as common as many other physical symptoms, but can occur if you become overly stressed.
- Fatigue: Although fatigue can be characterized as a psychological symptom, it can also be physical. At some point you may become so anxious that your muscles and body seem to run out of energy. The sympathetic nervous system tends to stimulate our muscles for dangerous scenarios. If we stay stimulated for too long, our physical energy levels can actually drop.
- Fight-or-flight response: This is characterized by a rapid heart-rate, increased physical energy, quicker thinking, and adrenaline. Although this physical response can be beneficial when we are faced with danger, in most situations it is detrimental to our functioning.
- Frequent urination: If you notice that you have to run to the bathroom more frequently whenever you get nervous, just know that this is very common. If you have bad anxiety, you may notice that your bladder feels full after a very short period of time. It may become especially worse in situations that trigger increases in anxiety.
- Gastrointestinal organ constriction: Another documented effect anxiety can have on the body is constricting gastrointestinal organs. This is thought to influence digestion, bowel movements, and absorption of nutrients.
- Headache: This is another one of the most common physical symptoms associated with anxiety. You may notice that you have a pounding headache that started right when you got anxious. If your anxiety becomes worse, your headache will likely follow suit. You may experience light headaches, moderate tension headaches, or even migraines if your anxiety becomes extreme.
- Heart palpitations: These are sensations that your heart is pounding and/or racing that are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. You may feel your heart fluttering and/or pounding more loudly and deeper than usual. Since your arousal has also increased, you are more aware of this physical symptom and you may initially think you’re going to have a heart attack.
- Heart rate increase: Your heart rate may increase as will the force of your heart contractions. This is not necessarily the same thing as palpitations, but is likely a contributing factor. Assuming you figure out how to deal with anxiety, and decrease it, your heart rate should decrease to a normal range.
- High blood pressure: If you become anxious, you may notice that your blood pressure increases. The increase may be minimal or pretty significant depending on your level of anxiety. When you are able to reduce the anxiety and calm yourself down, blood pressure should theoretically decrease.
- Hot flashes: Many people experience hot flashes, or sudden waves of warmth throughout the body when feeling anxious. These may be most prominent in the facial, neck, and chest area and can be associated with reddening of the skin.
- Kidney function changes: Your kidneys can increase secretion of “renin” or an enzyme that plays a role in influencing blood pressure. Renin is specifically associated with increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
- Libido changes: When you become anxious, you may become significantly uninterested in sex or you may experience an increased interest in sex. Some hypothesize that certain subtypes of anxiety and level of arousal can influence whether a person experiences an increase or decrease in sex drive. A majority of individuals report reduced libido when they become too anxious. In some cases high anxiety can affect ability to orgasm: premature ejaculation or anorgasmia.
- Lightheadedness: Some people feel lightheaded when their anxiety becomes extreme. This can be associated with feelings of dizziness as well. If you notice that you feel lightheaded more than usual, it could be due to your heightened anxiety.
- Lung functioning: When the body produces adrenaline, the lungs dilate the bronchioles. This allows for increased air flow to the lungs during times of danger. This serves to temporarily increase our ability to survive in life-threatening situations.
- Muscle tension: Many people report feeling tension throughout their body, specifically in muscles and joints. There are many ways to help release this tension including: practicing yoga, getting a massage, progressive relaxation, and physical exercise. If your entire body feels wound-up and tense, it’s due to your sympathetic nervous system being stuck in overdrive.
- Nausea: Feeling nauseous is common in cases of extreme anxiety. A person may feel like they are going to throw up because their panic becomes so extreme. Usually if an individual feels nauseous, they are experiencing a fairly extreme level of anxiety. This may affect appetite and in some cases can actually lead to vomiting.
- Numbness: Some people report feeling a numbness throughout the body and muscles. This is thought to be influenced by the sympathetic nervous system pumping adrenaline through the body. This temporarily increases threshold for physical pain and may lead some individuals to feel physically “numb.”
- Pupil dilation: When a person is relaxed, their pupils are known to constrict. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes active, a person’s pupils are known to dilate. Therefore you may notice that your pupils become huge if you are prone to extreme panic.
- Rapid breathing: As you become stimulated with anxiety, your heart rate increases as does your breathing speed. You may notice that you are breathing rapidly and cannot seem to calm yourself down. This may be accompanied by choking if a person is hyperventilating during a panic attack.
- Shaking: When your anxiety reaches a high level, you may actually shake or notice “tremors.” You may be shaking while sitting down because you are unable to contain the excess stimulation and adrenaline coursing through your body. Since you are physically primed with anxiety and adrenaline, this can easily lead to the shakes.
- Shortness of breath: Another symptom that you may note is that you experience shortness of breath. You may be temporarily unable to take deep breaths and may almost feel as if you are going to pass out. This is often accompanied by rapid breathing and choking sensations when you try to breathe.
- Sweating: When a person becomes anxious, a common physical symptom to note is increased sweating. You may sweat more often throughout the day and may even sweat while you sleep. This is due to the fact that the stress-response triggers your sweat glands to secrete more sweat.
- Tingling sensations: Although not common in everyone, some people will actually notice that their body actually tingles in certain areas when feeling anxious. These tingles can be throughout the entire body or in specific locations such as the face, arms, legs, hands, or feet.
- Twitching: In addition to experiencing physical shaking, you may notice that parts of your body twitch at random. Initially you may not chalk the twitching up to feeling anxious, but over time you may notice that the frequency of twitching correlates with your anxiety level.
- Vomiting: Some people become so anxious that they become nauseous and vomit. This can be the case when someone is dealing with significant unexpected anxiety and/or emotional trauma. Usually this is a rarer physical symptom, but one that should be mentioned nonetheless.
- Weight changes: In some cases, people end up worrying so much that they end up not eating proper diets and/or may become so preoccupied by the anxiety that they forget to eat. In other cases, people may actually increase the amount of food they eat and/or may binge on unhealthy foods when they become anxious. Additionally when a person is highly-anxious, their body will produce high levels of cortisol, which can make it easier to build fat and tougher to build muscle.
How to treat physical symptoms of anxiety and stress
In order to reduce physical symptoms that you may experience as a result of feeling anxious, the ultimate goal is to increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, while decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the culprit for causing these symptoms – its job is to promote the fight-or-flight response and help us when faced with danger. The problem is that when it becomes activated (or overactive) it can be very difficult to reduce activity.
If it stays overactive for an extended period of time, you may exhibit may classic signs of a nervous breakdown. To effectively reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system, the goal is to engage in relaxation exercises and techniques that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for promoting relaxation and essentially shutting off the physical symptoms that you experience during intense anxiety. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is important in overcoming PTSD and adrenaline addiction.
- Relaxation techniques: There are a variety of relaxation techniques, that if utilized on a consistent basis, will reduce your physical symptoms of anxiety. These include things like meditation, guided imagery, progressive relaxation, deep breathing, self-hypnosis, and yoga. Assuming you know how to properly perform relaxation techniques, your physical symptoms of anxiety will gradually fade over time. Read more about natural cures for anxiety to target these symptoms without medication.
- Lifestyle changes: Do you live a stress-filled lifestyle? If you have a demanding work schedule, are in an abusive relationship, eat unhealthy, don’t get adequate exercise, etc. – these could all be contributing to your anxiety. It is important to analyze your life and determine whether you could reduce your overall stress by making healthy changes.
- Medications: For managing the physical symptoms of anxiety, there are great medications. Although most doctors prescribe antidepressants for anxiety such as SSRIs to address both physical and psychological symptoms, other medications like beta blockers are thought to work well for addressing just the physical symptoms. If you think it’s necessary, try out a medication and see whether it helps improve the physical symptoms. If you don’t like the idea of taking a pharmaceutical medication, you could consider various herbal remedies for anxiety like kava kava and valerian root.
- Education: Most people are undereducated about what happens when the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated. For these individuals I highly recommend the book “Hope And Help For Your Nerves” by Dr. Claire Weekes. It is arguably the best book for teaching you how to cope with physical symptoms produced by extreme anxiety. If you have extreme physical symptoms, this book will be of significant benefit.
- Therapy: Ultimately you may want to get into therapy with someone who specializes in anxiety. The therapist may utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and/or may help teach you ways to deal with your physical symptoms. Therapy can be of significant help to someone who feels like their anxiety is driving them crazy.
Physical symptoms of anxiety & stress can be overwhelming
The physical symptoms of anxiety often go hand-in-hand with the psychological symptoms. For example, when a person experiences heart palpitations, it may make them mentally panic and believe that they are having a heart attack. This further increases the amount of panic and fear inside the person’s psychology. What really helps most people deal with physical symptoms of anxiety is a psychological acceptance of them.
If you have heart palpitations and panic each time you feel them or think you’re going to have a heart-attack, this will further increase health anxiety. However, if you accept your physical symptoms as being caused by an overactive sympathetic nervous system, you’ll realize that it’s merely a biological reaction and ultimately you are required to panic about. I know that the physical symptoms of extreme anxiety can drive anyone absolutely crazy.
You may develop temporary hypochondriasis as a result of these symptoms. If you aren’t able to recognize that they are caused by the sympathetic nervous system, you may believe that you have some rare health condition that is causing the physical symptoms. Although it is important to rule out other causes, if a doctor reassures you that your physical symptoms are caused by anxiety, it’s a safe bet that they are correct.