The physical symptoms of anxiety

“The saddest thing for me, about anxiety, is the fact that people will understand and nod sympathetically over a stomach ache or a headache, but tell them you have anxiety and they look at you like it’s something you can shrug off,” says Lisa, an elementary school vice principal. “It’s so frustrating, because the physical effects of anxiety are equally as distracting as any other ailment or illness. In some cases, maybe more.”


Lisa’s youngest son, Liam, now 16, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when he was 12. Lisa says she’s watched her son drop 15 lbs. in mere weeks, thrown up before classes taught by teachers with whom he felt uncomfortable, and once had a headache last for ten days straight.


“I’m not a psychologist, but at this point I feel very well versed in the effects of anxiety, because you know, like all moms, I feel what my son feels,” she says. She recalls a time in 8th grade when Liam needed to prepare for an oral French test; he couldn’t sleep for days before. The morning of the test, he screamed downstairs to his mother that he thought he was having a heart attack.


“Can you imagine the horror of your child curled up in his bed, his arms wrapped around his chest and crying that he’s having a heart attack?” Lisa recalls, her voice shaking. “His heart was racing and beating so hard that in his young mind, he thought that’s what was happening.” Lisa and her husband, Tom, rushed young Liam to hospital, but by the time they’d arrived – 15 minutes after the oral exam was slated to begin – Liam had relaxed and his heart rate was down to normal.


Lisa says that although she’s aware some of Liam’s discomforts today are a result of his anxiety, they’d had no idea in the beginning.


“We really thought, ‘What on earth is wrong with this boy?’” she remembers. “If it wasn’t irritable bowels, it was a headache. If it wasn’t a headache, he was complaining of a stiff neck. If it wasn’t that, it was that he couldn’t breathe.


“But then we started to connect that when he was faced with a stressful situation, like volleyball tryouts or a big test or a dance, that’s when all these symptoms started surfacing.


“And you know, other people might be tempted to say, ‘Well, you figured it out, it’s anxiety. That means none of it’s real.’ But talking to Liam and his physician, the symptoms are real. He’s actually feeling all of those things.


“So when a person has anxiety and is telling you they’re feeling any kind of physical pain, please don’t dismiss it.”


How to control anxiety at work.


Physical symptoms of anxiety


The following are some of the most frequently reported physical symptoms of anxiety. Do you recognize any (or all) of them?


You just can’t get over your exhaustion. Anxiety is draining, so it would make total sense if you’re feeling completely worn out all day, every day. Experts claim that anxiety can send our sympathetic nervous system into a tailspin, which means our heart rate can rise, along with our blood pressure. Our muscles go tense, and toxins are released into our system which can cause inflammation. Doesn’t that just all sound tiring?


If you’re worn out even after getting a full night’s sleep, or if coffee has historically given you a burst of energy and doesn’t seem to anymore, it could be a sign that your exhaustion is a result of your anxiety. If you can’t seem to muster up the energy to attend events you used to love to go to, or if your permanent state seems to be “burnt out,” that could also be a sign of anxiety-induced fatigue.


You’ve got insomnia – or hypersomnia. Do you feel like you just can’t shut off at night? Do you feel completely and utterly wiped, and yet you can’t stop to stop your brain from bouncing from one thought to the next? Does it seem impossible to get a full night’s rest despite having bought every type of pillow and sleeping aid on the planet?


If you have anxiety and you experience sleep disruptions, you’re not alone. Some people with anxiety report being unable to fall asleep, while others say they have no trouble falling asleep but just can’t seem to stay asleep. Others, on the other hand, say they’re so exhausted that they can barely stay awake, especially during the day.


Insomnia could be because elevated levels of hormones are making it difficult to shut off – they’re causing your body so much trouble that you just can’t relax.


If you suffer from insomnia, make sure you see your doctor. It could be that your anxiety is causing your insomnia, but it could also be that your insomnia is actually what’s causing you anxiety.


Your stomach always hurts, no matter what you eat, or don’t. One of the most commonly reported physical symptoms of anxiety is stomach pain. Some experience mild stomach pain, while others struggle with more serious or troubling issues, like constipation, diarrhea, or unexplained pain.


Anxiety really messes with the communication between your brain and what’s called the enteric nervous system, which is the operation behind your digestion. This disruption can cause you to become irregular, or at the very least, cause a nasty cycle of constipation-diarrhea-constipation-diarrhea.


As if anxiety wasn’t bad enough by itself, right?


You’re frequently sick with a cold. You might be at the point where you’re telling people, “It’s just allergies.” But you agree with everyone -- you can’t seem to figure out why you’re sick all the time.


Scientists claim that when you’re in fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time, it puts your immune system under a lot of stress, and eventually, it breaks down. This means that you’re just that much more at risk for colds or other communicable diseases.


And if you have depression too? You may be unable to get up out of bed, or have little energy or desire to perform normal hygienic practices, like washing your hands or bathing. That could make you more susceptible to contagious illnesses too. Read about things to do when you're sad.


You sweat profusely. Some people already sweat under a bit of pressure, but for some people with anxiety, the idea of sweating makes them sweat even more! Sweating is an extremely common side effect of anxiety. So if you’re finding you’re sweating excessively – whether it’s the smelly kind or the not-that-smelly kind – it could be due to your anxiety.


You jump at everything. Did you know being easily startled or scared is a symptom of anxiety too? Anxiety activates – and enhances – the stress response, which causes physiological and psychological changes in your body. This means that you probably jump at things that normally wouldn’t scare you, and it might be happening more frequently or more intensely.


Also, when stress is happening much too frequently, your body can’t recover as quickly, so your senses get hyperstimulated. After all, the nervous system is what’s responsible for sending and receiving information, including sights, sounds, and smells – so if you’re nervous, things that normally wouldn’t even turn your head are suddenly causing you to come out of your skin.


Everything hurts. Ever had a panic attack and suddenly notice your whole body feels tight and painful? That’s because your muscles get tense during moments of anxiety and can cause feelings of stiffness that stick around for a long time, long after your anxious episode has faded away.


You’ve got chest pains. Chest pain is scary – many people who suffer from anxiety report feeling pain in the chest and rush to the emergency room, worried their anxiety has caused something seriously wrong, like a heart attack.


We never recommend dismissing any kind of chest pain, but quite often it’s not a heart attack. Chest pain is definitely a symptom of anxiety, but it’s still absolutely imperative that any time you feel any kind of pain in the chest to go to the emergency room or to another professional medical facility to be diagnosed and treated.


You can’t breathe. Many people say they have a hard time breathing when they’re having an anxiety attack. This is normal too – it’s almost like you’re getting smothered or that you’re suffocating.


Like some of the other symptoms mentioned above, breathlessness or shortness of breath is yet another reaction from the fight-or-flight response. It’s your body’s way of reacting like you’re running from something dangerous, because it interprets your worry as a sign that you’re in peril.


Learn about how to help a loved one with anxiety.


If you have anxiety and are experiencing physical symptoms, know that you’re not alone. In addition to seeking the advice of a medical doctor, we invite you to come visit us to speak with a licensed therapist today.  


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