Have you ever felt your heart racing or nauseous when you were just about to read your final exam grade, open a college acceptance letter, or get a medical test result? Or maybe you had two great job offers, and you laid awake most of the night because you couldn’t decide which one to take. These are examples of life events that can produce anxiety and real physical symptoms —and you are not alone.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports, “Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience anxiety daily, and most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives.”
Read on to learn more about anxiety, how it can manifest as physical symptoms in your body, and how you can manage it.
What Is Anxiety?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” It is your body’s natural response to stress.
When we hear the term anxiety, we often associate it with something negative; but, occasional anxiety is a normal aspect of life and can even be beneficial because it can alert us to danger and take appropriate action.
Anxiety becomes problematic when it shifts from familiar feelings of anxiousness or nervousness to a life-altering anxiety disorder. Approximately 30 percent of adults are affected by an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. If you have an anxiety disorder, you experience:
- An inability to function normally
- Overreactions when you are emotionally triggered
- Inability to control your emotional responses
Can Anxiety Cause Physical Symptoms?
Can anxiety cause physical symptoms? According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the answer is a definitive “yes.” Have you visited physicians to find a reason for significant physical ailments just to discover they can’t find an explanation other than suggesting you have anxiety? That can be incredibly frustrating. But rest assured that your symptoms are real, and you aren’t imagining the physical effects of anxiety.
Here is what happens in your body when you’re anxious. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between real or perceived danger, which means your autonomic nervous system kicks in when you experience anxiety. When that happens, your sympathetic nervous system triggers an involuntary fight-or-flight response, which produces real physical symptoms. It’s a biological response that can cause a variety of physical symptoms.
When your body gets stuck in fight-or-flight mode, it is in a constant state of trying to protect you from danger as it pumps stress hormones throughout your body and causes unpleasant physical symptoms. The difficulty is that the well-disguised physical manifestations of anxiety seem like there is another medical explanation, so you can end up on rabbit trails trying to find out what is wrong.
Physical Symptoms Caused By Anxiety Are Real
Now that you know you aren’t imagining your symptoms, let’s look at common physical symptoms caused by anxiety.
Do you often feel like you’re recovering from running a marathon? Achy muscles? Body pain? Muscle aches and joint pain are common symptoms of anxiety. You naturally tense up when you’re stressed, causing muscle fatigue and soreness. Also, the adrenaline released in your body when you’re anxious causes blood vessels to constrict in your large muscles, which can lead to muscle twitching, fatigue, and achiness.
Do you feel tired all the time and wonder where your energy went? Anxiety can be exhausting for many reasons. First, the adrenaline crash after your body has been in fight-or-flight mode causes fatigue. Anxiety can also cause difficulty sleeping at night, which increases daytime exhaustion. Ongoing worry and stressful thoughts add to an extreme feeling of tiredness.
Have you ever made a “gut-wrenching” decision or experienced “butterflies in your stomach?” Research reveals a brain-gut connection so profound that the lining of your digestive system from your esophagus to your rectum is often referred to as your “second brain.” It is made up of two layers of over 100 million nerve cells.
Your gut’s brain is called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it communicates intricately with the brain in your head. For this reason, there is a strong relationship between anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal reflux, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and other digestive problems.
Anxiety can also cause dizziness. Stress hormones such as cortisol are released when you have anxiety and can impact your vestibular system, causing dizziness. Your vestibular system is in your inner ear and controls balance, so when it is disrupted, you feel off balance.
The brain-body connection is significant, and research supports the negative impact of anxiety and chronic stress on the body. Chronic stress causes inflammation, leading to serious diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular dysfunction, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases.
Headaches or Migraines
If you suffer from unexplained headaches or migraines, you understand how debilitating they are. The ADAA reports that migraines and daily headaches are common for people who suffer from anxiety.
Headaches can result from the tension of stress. Migraines can be triggered by the sudden surge of adrenaline that occurs when you experience a fight-or-flight response during anxiety and make it nearly impossible to function.
Heart palpitations can feel quite scary. They feel like your heart is racing, fluttering, pounding, or skipping beats. Some people also describe feeling momentarily short of breath. Like the other physical symptoms caused by anxiety, heart palpitations are your body’s biological response to acute stress. Fortunately, heart palpitations from anxiety are rarely serious.
Managing the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can become debilitating, and it takes a toll on your health if it isn’t adequately managed. The good news is that anxiety is treatable if lifestyle adjustments don’t control it. The following list includes healthy steps you can take to manage anxiety.
- Stay physically active with light exercise (walking, stretching, and yoga are good stress relievers).
- Practice relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, guided meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation.
- Avoid using caffeine to combat fatigue.
- Limit or avoid alcohol.
- Know your limits, and learn to say “no.”
- If you need a nap, keep it to 20 minutes and early in the day.