Many Americans and people around the world suffer from anxiety. The symptoms are not just mental but rather physical too.
When people talk about anxiety, they often focus on its mental and emotional effects. That makes perfect sense, as the overwhelming worry and fear that characterize anxiety can be debilitating. But many anxiety disorders can come with their fair share physical symptoms, too.
“When a person experiences anxiety, it’s essentially the fight-or-flight system kicking in and saying, ‘Danger!’” Neda Gould, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Anxiety Disorders Clinic, tells SELF.
Your fight-or-flight system is supposed to help you survive a threat by escaping or fending it off. In way-back-then, cavepeople days, that threat might have been something along the lines of a lion. If you have anxiety, though, your fear and worry are that threat, prompting your sympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary processes like your breathing and heart rate, to kick into high gear. This leads your adrenal glands to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, according to the Mayo Clinic. This domino effect is behind anxiety’s physical symptoms.
“From head to toe, almost every system can be impacted just by nature of your body releasing a lot of stress hormones,” Mona Potter, M.D., medical director at McLean Anxiety Mastery Program in Boston, Massachusetts, tells SELF.
Here are some of the biggest physical symptoms of anxiety, plus when they could actually be signaling a panic attack.
1. Your heart is racing.
This is a classic sign of anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). So, remember how we just mentioned that your sympathetic nervous system controls your heart rate? When you’re dealing with something stressful and your adrenal glands churn out hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, receptors in your heart react by speeding up your heartbeat. This enables you to pump more blood to your big muscles so you could theoretically flee or combat a threat, Gould explains. But if you’re dealing with anxiety, that racing heart could just make you feel more nervous in a vicious cycle.
2. You’re short of breath.
Your blood circulates oxygen around your body. (It also transports carbon dioxide, a waste product, to your lungs so you can breathe it out.) When your stress response boosts how quickly you’re sending blood around your body, your breathing might increase to provide you with more oxygen.
If you breathe too quickly (also known as hyperventilation), you can actually enhance a lot of the physical anxiety symptoms on this list because your oxygen/carbon dioxide balance gets out of whack, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
“That’s why we often talk about belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing,” says Dr. Potter. This is essentially breathing slowly and deeply by really using your diaphragm. (Tucked underneath your lungs, this is the main muscle involved in breathing.) By slowing down how quickly you’re breathing, you have more of a chance to get the oxygen you need, Dr. Potter explains. You also engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you feel calm after a threat has passed.
3. You’re constantly exhausted.
A persistent feeling of fatigue is a common sign of anxiety, according to the NIMH. The reason why is two-fold. For starters, that anxiety-activated uptick in stress hormones can keep you revved up on high alert, which can be seriously draining, says Dr. Potter. But there’s an additional complicating factor: Sleep and anxiety have a complicated relationship, which brings us to another typical physical side effect of anxiety…
4. You can’t fall asleep, stay asleep, are restless during the night, or wake up feeling drained.
A person with anxiety might have a tough time falling asleep, staying asleep, or might have restless and unsatisfying sleep, according to the NIMH. Elevated levels of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline make it hard to get a good night’s sleep, since your buzzing body may not be able to relax enough to rest. The racing thoughts that can come with anxiety are no recipe for great sleep, either.
It’s not just that anxiety contributes to sleep problems. Sleep issues such as insomnia can make you more prone to anxiety, too, the Mayo Clinic explains.
5. Your muscles ache.
Your muscles tense up as part of your stress response. Holding parts of your body so rigidly for prolonged periods can lead to pain, says Dr. Potter, who notes that many people with anxiety report feeling tight in their necks, backs, or shoulders. You might also feel muscle tension all the way up into your head, leading to headaches, says Dr. Potter.
6. Your stomach is all sorts of messed up.
A lot of this may boil down to what experts call the gut-brain axis, which is a communication system between your brain and the enteric nervous system that governs your digestion. This connection is why stress can so easily mess with your poop. There’s also the fact that anxiety-induced lifestyle choices like eating foods that don’t agree with you or not exercising can affect your digestion as well.
|Read on: 10 Anxiety Symptoms That Affect Your Body, Because It’s Not All Mental|