Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on
August 8, 2021
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on:

Do you often feel tense, jittery, or have a racing heart? You may be experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that can be experienced in many different ways. It can range from occasional worry to constant fear and panic attacks. When anxiety becomes excessive, it’s considered an anxiety disorder. 

What does anxiety feel like physically?

The physical symptoms of anxiety are often the first sign of an underlying problem. You may have experienced these symptoms before without realizing what they were caused by.

If you notice any new or worsening physical symptoms, talk with your doctor about what they could mean for your health.

In this article, we will explore the physical symptoms of anxiety and why they happen.

Read on to learn more about this condition that many people experience but few understand well enough!

Types of Anxiety Disorders:

There are several types of anxiety disorders. They include:

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder (PD) is a condition characterized by recurrent unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are brief moments of intense fear that come in sharp surges and peak within minutes. A panic attack typically involves sudden terror that has no obvious cause.

It is often accompanied by physical symptoms like a racing heart, breathing difficulties, and sweating. Those with this disorder live in fear of experiencing a panic attack. Attacks may happen at any time. A person can have panic disorder and another type of anxiety disorder at the same time.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time about things happening in your life. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is not the same as just being anxious. Generalized anxiety disorder triggers constant and uncontrollable fear about everyday problems.

This condition involves anxiety or worries like family, work, health, school, and finances. Sometimes people with this condition worry, but they can’t pinpoint what it is that worries them. They may say they feel overwhelmed and anxious or report feelings of discomfort, sadness, or paranoia. Excessive anxiety can make it hard for someone to develop relationships.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety (SAD) is a type of anxiety condition in which the person experiences extreme distress. This happens when they’re separated from a person, a pet, or a particular place like their house.

People of all ages can experience separation anxiety, but it is especially common in children. 3-4% of children have separation anxiety disorder. It usually occurs in babies between 8 and 12 months old and disappears around age 2. Some children experience symptoms as they progress through grade school into their teen years.

Separation anxiety can occur in adults as well. The person may also manifest physical symptoms that include nausea, headache, and sore throat.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder (SAD), or social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that causes an intense fear of social situations. People with this disorder have difficulty talking to strangers or meeting new people. They also avoid jobs that require them to be out in public or where they might be judged by others.

Even though they may know their fears are unreasonable, they feel powerless to overcome them. Social anxiety is persistent and debilitating. It can limit one’s ability to work, attend school and develop close relationships with those outside of their family.

It typically begins around age 13. According to the ADDA, social anxiety disorder affects approximately 15 million American adults.

Phobias

A phobia is a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. People with phobias try to avoid what they are afraid of. If they cannot, they may experience panic, fear, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, and a strong desire to escape.

Phobias come in all shapes and sizes. Specific phobias typically fall into one of the following categories.

  • fears related to animals (spiders, dogs, insects)
  • fears related to specific situations (flying, riding an elevator, driving)
  • fears related to the natural environment (heights, thunder, darkness)
  • fears related to blood, injury, or medical issues (injections, broken bones, falls)
  • other (choking, loud noises, drowning)

These categories include a giant number of objects and situations.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder characterized by repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions). The person then feels driven to do certain actions repetitively (compulsions). Although people with OCD often realize their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, they cannot stop them.

They feel compelled to act out particular rituals repeatedly, even against their will, and even if it complicates their life. Examples of obsessions are a fear of germs or a fear of being hurt. Compulsions include washing their hands, counting, checking on things, or cleaning. If OCD is left untreated, it can take over one’s life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that begins after a traumatic event. Symptoms can manifest immediately or can manifest over time. Common causes include war, natural disasters, or sexual assault or abuse. PTSD episodes may be triggered without warning. It can happen to anyone at any age.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Here are many ways that anxiety manifests physically:

Your mood and your weight are affected

When you feel anxious, your brain floods your nervous system with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, to help you respond to a threat. Long-term anxiety and panic attacks can cause the brain to release these hormones constantly.

While helpful for the occasional high-stress event, long-term exposure to stress hormones can be more harmful. It can increase the frequency of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and depression. Also, long-term exposure to cortisol can contribute to weight gain.

Your heart is racing

Accelerated heart rate and heart palpitations are classic signs of anxiety. As we said earlier, during a stressful situation, adrenaline and cortisol are produced in big quantities. This leads to an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

After the threat is gone, it takes around 30 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels. This is called the fight-or-flight response and is a normal reaction to occasional stressful events. But, if you’re dealing with anxiety, that constant racing of the heart could make you feel more nervous in a never-ending cycle.

It may also put you at an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. If you already have heart disease, anxiety disorders may increase the risk of coronary events.

Your digestive system is messed up

Anxiety affects your excretory and digestive systems as well. Stressful experiences cause cortisol to block processes that the body considers nonessential. One of these processes is digestion.

At the same time, the body releases the hormone adrenaline which reduces blood flow and relaxes the stomach muscles. Stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, and other kinds of gastrointestinal distress can happen. Loss of appetite can also occur.

On top of the anxiety, lack of exercise and eating foods that your body doesn’t tolerate well can affect your digestion as well. Studies show that depression and anxiety are linked to many digestive diseases. It includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.

You’re likely to get sick

Remember how we mentioned that anxiety triggers your fight-or-flight response? When stressors are always present, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The long-term activation of this stress response system can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This includes your immune system.

This could mean that you’re more susceptible to illnesses such as the common cold, the flu, and other types of infection. But, there are several factors at play here too. Examples include how robust your immune system is in general and how conscientious you are about keeping your hands clean.

You’re short of breath

Oxygen helps circulate the blood around your body. Your fight-or-flight response speeds up how quickly you’re sending blood around your body, due to your heart racing.

As a result, you might find yourself taking more large breaths to get a boost of oxygen. Your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. This type of breathing is called hyperventilation. Hyperventilation allows the lungs to take in more oxygen and transport it around the body quickly.

Hyperventilation can make you feel out of breath and gasp for breath. This worsens hyperventilation, which includes symptoms like dizziness, lightheadedness, tingling, and weakness.

Also, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may be more susceptible to complications. Anxiety can also worsen asthma symptoms.

You can’t sleep properly

Serious sleep disturbances are one of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders. This includes insomnia. People with anxiety often constantly think about their problems in bed, and this can keep them from falling asleep. A key factor behind insomnia is a mental state of hyperarousal frequently marked by worry.

People with anxiety disorders have higher sleep reactivity. This means that they are much more likely to have sleeping problems when they are stressed. Distress from falling asleep can also create sleep anxiety that reinforces a person’s sense of fear and preoccupation.

It’s not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night when you suffer from anxiety. Getting back to bed can be a challenge if your mind again starts racing with worry.

Anxiety may also provoke nightmares and create a higher likelihood of sleep disruptions and fear around going to sleep.

Your muscles are tense and/or painful

Muscles tense up as part of the stress response. Stress can cause muscles to tense suddenly, and then release their tension when the stress subsides. Chronic stress causes the muscles to be in a continuous state of guardedness. It will run tension through the body and impact many muscles.

You will feel tight in their neck, jaw, chest, shoulders, or back. If muscle tightness continues in an area for a long time, it can lead to actual pain. Muscle tension can also be felt up into the head, leading to headaches.

You feel tightness in your throat

According to the U.S National Library of Medicine, people with anxiety often experience tightness in their throats. They may even have trouble swallowing. They feel as if something is stuck in their throat. This is called globus sensation. It is not clear why this happens, but it may worsen anxiety symptoms.

Your reproductive system is affected

In men:

During the fight-or-flight response, testosterone and cortisol production is affected. Chronic stress might disturb the male reproductive system in many ways. It may lead to a decreased sexual desire and can cause erectile dysfunction. It may also affect sperm production and maturation, causing fertility problems.

Also, when anxiety affects the immune system, the male reproductive system might become more prone to infections.

In women:

Chronic stress may affect menstruation. Absent or irregular menstrual cycles, painful periods, and changes in the length of cycles might happen. Premenstrual symptoms might become worse as well. They include cramps, bloating, and mood swings.

When stress is high, it may also reduce women’s sexual desire and impact a woman’s ability to conceive. Maternal stress may also negatively impact fetal and childhood development. In fact, after delivery, excess stress makes it more likely to develop depression.

Chronic stress also affects menopause. During menopause, hormone levels change a lot. These changes are associated with anxiety, mood swings, and feelings of distress. Chronic anxiety may make the physical symptoms worse. For example, more anxious women may experience a higher number and more severe hot flashes during menopause.

As we said earlier, anxiety affects the immune system. The female reproductive system might become more prone to infections during periods of high stress. There is also an increased chance of exacerbation of symptoms of reproductive disease states. This includes herpes simplex virus or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Managing the Physical Symptoms

Anxiety disorders are more common than you think. Treating anxiety disorders is important for better mental health and physical health. The first step when it comes to treating anxiety disorders is to take care of yourself. There are many healthy habits you can include in your daily life such as:

  • maintaining a healthy social support network
  • be physically active
  • getting 8 hours of sleep per night
  • meditating or doing yoga
  • avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine

If you are still experiencing excessive or chronic anxiety, a mental health professional can help you find ways to cope with the symptoms. Treatment requires the understanding of the symptoms you are experiencing and their severity. It often includes therapy or medication.

Anxiety disorders can be treated by therapy alone. But, if symptoms persist, your doctor may prescribe prescription medications as well. If you are experiencing anxiety symptoms, make sure to pay a visit to your doctor.

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