While there are plenty of articles out there on common symptoms of anxiety (cheers for these btw!), there's hardly anything written about the physical symptoms of anxiety.
As a therapist who works a lot with anxiety, you'd be hard pressed to find someone coming to therapy for anxiety who isn't experiencing at least one of the symptoms listed below. That's because anxiety is experienced in the part of the brain that also controls much of our physical body. When we experience anxiety, our body perceives a threat and responds to that threat in a physical way.
Oftentimes, clients find themselves in the ER or doctor's office due to a concern that they might be having a heart attack before they actually end up in my office. Once clients start to see me, I use a somatic type of therapy to help them understand and build a better relationship with their own mind-body connection. These are a few of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety that I tend to see:
1. Chronic throat problems or tight throat that doesn’t go away.
According to The US National Library of Medicine, our throats happen to be one area of the body that holds onto this stress for unknown reasons.
When I was in college and dealing with some major anxiety, I caught tonsillitis or strep 8X my freshman year and 9X my sophomore year. I ended up needing to get my tonsils removed which helped some but the tightness in my throat continued to linger until I sought out a form of therapy called biofeedback. Biofeedback taught me about the mind-body connection or how the brain impacts our physical body. One of the things I learned from this experience is that college students have a high rate of strep and tonsillitis.
Although one might argue this is because many college students live in close quarters with other students, it’s also possible that it’s a physical response to the stress of exams, late night study sessions, and huge transition into independence and adulthood (not to mention the amount of parental stress oftentimes placed on new students to succeed or stick to a major that the student hates). Similarly, chronic stress can weaken the immune system as a way of preparing the body for fight/flight/flee against a perceived threat. This happens not only when studying for finals, but during stressful times in our life or in response to trauma.
2. Chronic exhaustion.
Imagine the gas and brakes in the car. When you put your foot on the gas of your car without ever stopping to press the brakes to slow down, you end up running out of gas. Our nervous system works similarly in that if we never push our brakes and relax, our bodies get the message that we need to keep pushing on the gas and thus, we run out of energy and are chronically tired.
This sounds like the perfect place for a rude comment like “just relax” but sometimes we have been under so much stress for so long or have experienced such a stressful situation, that we have to teach our bodies to relax through rebuilding safety and trust in our environment before we can feel rested. Easier said than done I can assure you. If gentle, yin, kundalini or nidra yoga or guided meditation for sleep haven’t worked to help your exhaustion in the past, it might be wise to work with a mental health therapist who specializes in sleep, trauma, or is body oriented.
3. Racing or pounding heart.
Again, another common response to what the body perceives as a threat. The gas in our car (sympathetic nervous system) controls your heart rate. When you perceive something as stressful or threatening, your adrenal glands produce an increase in cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones). Your heart reacts to this increase of stress hormones and speeds up the heart rate in order to pump more blood to your large muscles to prepare to fight or flight in a combat. The good news is that your racing heart means that your body is doing what it’s programmed to do. Practicing mindful mantras or phrases when you notice these sensations such as “this is my body’s natural response to fear” or “I am safe” can help to ease a racing heart.
4. Shortness of breath.
People with chronic anxiety tend to breathe more from their chest than their bellies in an (often unconscious) attempt to gasp for air. When your breathe too quickly or mostly from your chest, your body receives the message that an increase in oxygen means there is danger looming. Spending a few minutes each day breathing from your belly or diaphragm sends the message to your body that you are safe and that it’s okay to relax.
5. Achy muscles & headaches.
Your muscles tense up in response to stress. Individuals who have undergone chronic stress without relaxation or who have experienced trauma, can lead to painfully tight muscles. Many people with chronic anxiety report achy muscles in their upper part of their bodies (neck, shoulders and head) which can also lead to headaches.
6. Gastrointestinal issues.
Ever had really bad diarrhea or pain during a difficult time in your life? You’re not alone. GI issues such as constipation, diarrhea or pain show up a lot in people who are experiencing anxiety. This is due to the gut-brain axis, which is a communication system between our brain and the part of our nervous system that controls our digestion. AKA when our brain gets the message that we are stressed or perceives any sort of threat, it directly messes with our entire digestion system.
7. Extra sweaty & smelly sweaty.
Your sympathetic nervous system (the gas in your “car”) gets activated, one of the things that it triggers are sweat glands. According to NIMH, not only can you sweat profusely, but when your sweat glands are influenced by a SNS response, the type of sweat perspired can smell really bad.
8. Lowered immune system.
You catch colds more easily when you’re in a chronic state of fight or flight. Your body thinks it’s under attack and is simply trying to preserve what little resources it has to protect you from what it believes is a life threat. That means a weakened immune system.
If you believe that you have an anxiety disorder or have experienced trauma and have not been able to feel like yourself even after trying meditation, exercise or yoga, please reach out to a trained trauma or body-oriented mental health therapist for help.
1. National Institute of Mental Health website
2. U.S. National Library of Medicine website
3. "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk
4. "Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma" by Peter Levine
5. "In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness" by Peter Levine
6. "The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Healing" by Babette Rothschild
7. "The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation" by Steven Porges