Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, can affect a person both mentally and physically.
Each person with anxiety will experience a different combination of symptoms.
Sometimes, temporary anxiety is an expected response to stress. However, clinicians may view anxiety as a disorder if it occurs over an extended period, causes substantial distress, or interferes with daily life. There are also different types of anxiety which vary based on their causes and how symptoms present.
This article will explain the physical symptoms of anxiety as well as how to treat them. It will explain how to differentiate physical symptoms of anxiety from other signs of illness. It will also answer some frequently asked questions about physical symptoms of anxiety.
Physical symptoms of anxiety
Physical symptoms of anxiety can include:
- dizziness, faintness, or weakness
- tiredness or fatigue
- palpitations, or a fast, strong, or irregular heartbeat
- body pain, muscle aches, headache, or tension
- trembling, shaking, or restlessness such as tapping or leg bouncing, known as psychomotor agitation
- dry mouth
- sweating, hot flashes, or chills
- shortness of breath or a choking sensation
- stomachache, nausea, or the feeling of butterflies in the stomach
- a need to go to the toilet
- paresthesia, or the feeling of pins and needles
- insomnia, such as difficulty with falling asleep or staying asleep
The severity and duration of symptoms will vary from person to person. Some individuals may experience one or two symptoms, whereas others may experience a range or combination of effects.
There are a variety of different anxiety disorders that have different presentations. Physical symptoms may vary between types of anxiety, which have different characteristics.
Types of anxiety can include:
For example, physical symptoms of an anxiety attack or panic disorder may develop very suddenly. They are not necessarily due to a noticeable trigger.
Additionally, those with OCD may experience physical or sensory manifestations of compulsions. They may also experience other physical and mental symptoms, such as motor tics. For example, a person with OCD may have the mental compulsion to tap something a certain number of times.
Why does anxiety cause a physical response?
When your brain perceives stress or danger, your body triggers the nervous system. It then produces the fight-or-flight response to protect you.
This response causes the release of hormones called epinephrine and norepinephrine. They serve as messengers in your body by setting off physical reactions. These reactions are the symptoms of anxiety.
The fight-or-flight response is sometimes an expected and typical response to a threat. However, anxiety can trigger this response more often or in response to additional triggers. Anxiety symptoms or the fight-or-flight response may become frequent, disruptive, or chronic. This may indicate an anxiety disorder rather than a typical response to fear or stress.
Contact your doctor regarding new physical or psychological symptoms of anxiety. Physical anxiety symptoms can impact your quality of life and cause distress, so seeking medical support is important.
Although everyone experiences feelings of stress and anxiety from time to time, chronic anxiety symptoms could improve with care. Symptoms that are frequent, interfere with daily life, or do not easily resolve may indicate such a condition.
Additionally, some cases of anxiety may present an increased risk for other physical health problems. For example, researchers from a 2016 study suggest that anxiety can influence heart health.
Researchers also note that diagnosis and treatment for anxiety can improve health outcomes and quality of life.
It can be hard to know when your physical symptoms are the result of anxiety or a different disorder.
This can be distressing for those who experience anxiety. Concern about your health may further trigger symptoms or cause worry. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that these worries can cause a vicious cycle of panic. This can present as a person worrying that they are experiencing a medical emergency. This person then experiences more stress, causing further physical symptoms of anxiety.
However, there are a few differences that may help identify whether your symptoms are due to anxiety or a different health condition.
With anxiety, you may notice that your physical symptoms have a particular trigger. For example, if you have a phobia, your symptoms may occur with exposure to what you fear.
Additionally, panic attacks typically resolve within 20–30 minutes and your symptoms may improve from that point.
By contrast, medically urgent causes of symptoms worsen over time instead of improving gradually. For example, a heart attack may cause worsening symptoms of rapid breathing or palpitations. A heart attack may also cause pain or pressure in the chest. This pain can radiate to the arm, jaw, or shoulder, and can occur during or after physical activity.
Seek medical help for the following symptoms
Panic or anxiety attacks do not typically require hospital attention.
However, it is advisable to seek medical help for the following symptoms:
- a panic attack that continues for more than 20 minutes
- feeling unwell after breathing returns to normal
- persistent rapid or irregular heartbeat, even after feelings of panic subside
- severe pain anywhere in the body
This is in case there is an underlying physical cause of your symptoms. A medical team will then be able to check for serious illness and give you appropriate care.
Tips for how to relieve physical symptoms of anxiety
Self-management and care techniques can help to alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety.
These techniques include:
- breathing and relaxation exercises
- meditation or mindfulness
- exercise or physical activity
- eating a balanced diet
- noting the onset of your symptoms and any possible triggers
- seeking support from your family, friends, or peers
- trying to improve your sleep quality, for example by:
- going to bed at the same time every day
- avoiding using electronics before bed or in the bedroom
- avoiding consuming caffeine, alcohol, or large meals just before bed
- making sure your sleep environment is quiet, dark, and relaxing
- allowing time to sleep for at least 7 or more hours each night
Self-management alone may not be enough to alleviate your symptoms of anxiety. If this is the case for you, a doctor can help you to access more effective treatments.
The most appropriate and effective treatment may depend on the cause of your anxiety, type of anxiety disorder, and your symptoms.
Generally, clinical treatment for anxiety can include:
- psychological therapies such as:
- applied relaxation
Applied relaxation may help you respond to physical symptoms of anxiety. It works by relaxing the muscles in a certain way during anxiety-inducing situations. This can help you to relax your muscles quickly and consciously in response to a trigger. Using this technique, you can minimize the physical reactions to anxiety.
As anxiety can have a significant impact on health and well-being, finding effective help is important.
You can start looking for support by contacting your primary care doctor for advice and direction. You can also use therapist directories and social forms of support such as government or charity programs for advice.
Besides your doctor, the following sources can offer you advice and support. They also signal useful services to you that are available in your area.
Chat advice services for anxiety include:
You can also get help finding a therapist in your area with:
Anxiety can affect a person’s quality of life, especially if they are not able to receive effective treatment solutions.
However, combinations of clinical treatment and self-care can help to alleviate physical symptoms of anxiety and reduce their impact. This can help to improve a person’s quality of life and support recovery.
Below are some frequently asked questions about anxiety and its physical symptoms.
What are the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression?
Some physical symptoms of depression may be the same as those of anxiety, such as fatigue and sleep problems.
Additional physical symptoms of depression may include unexpected changes in weight, moving or speaking more slowly than typical for you, and loss of libido.
Learn more about how depression affects your body here.
What physical conditions can anxiety cause?
Without effective treatment, anxiety can cause or exacerbate other physical conditions. These include sleep disorders, gastrointestinal conditions, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory illness.
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as nausea, rapid breathing, sweating, and palpitations. This can occur due to the fight-or-flight response, which triggers the release of hormones that produce physical reactions.
Diagnosing the physical symptoms of anxiety is important. Anxiety can affect your quality of life and can increase the risk of further effects on health without treatment. Treatment and support includes therapy, medication, and self-relaxation techniques.
Contact your doctor regarding any new or disruptive symptoms of anxiety. This can also help to rule out other possible causes of physical symptoms.