Anxiety: Physical Symptoms Explained

Anxiety has a wide range of symptoms that may be frightening, especially when you aren’t sure what’s causing them. Those with anxiety symptoms are more prone to worry that something physically wrong is happening to them, which further exacerbates their anxiety. This blog post is an overview of some explanations for the physical symptoms that those with anxiety may experience.

While many physical symptoms can be explained by anxiety, it’s recommended that health problems be ruled out first.

Anxiety symptoms can be similar to symptoms of serious health problems including heart attack, respiratory issues, hyperthyroidism, and other health conditions. Those with anxiety may be able to better interpret their physical symptoms if major health concerns have first been addressed by a medical professional.

The following are some explanations for anxiety-related physical symptoms:

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath related to anxiety can be caused by the body preparing for fight-or-flight and sending more oxygen to the muscles in the arms and legs. This may cause shortness of breath because there isn’t enough available oxygen in the lungs for adequate breathing due to increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Another anxiety-related explanation is that adrenaline released during anxiety causes you to take short, shallow breaths that can result in hyperventilation.

 

Rapid heartbeat 

Rapid heartbeat can be caused by the increased sympathetic nervous system activity that occurs with anxiety. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response and causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and blood glucose levels. Anxiety triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol which cause an increase in heart rate.

 

Chest pain

Chest pain can be the result of several things, such as muscle tension in the chest muscles (i.e., intense muscle contractions in the chest wall), a rapid heartbeat, or hyperventilation. It can also be related to anxiety-caused changes in the nervous system.

 

Dizziness, lightheadedness, and feeling faint

Dizziness, lightheadedness, and feeling faint can be due to a decrease in blood glucose as anxiety causes an increase in cortisol which depletes glycogen stores. This, combined with increased activity of the autonomic nervous system may result in lightheadedness or dizziness. It can also result from short, fast breathing that can occur when you’re anxious.

 

Muscle tension and headache

Muscle tension can be caused by the increased activity of the autonomic nervous system that accompanies anxiety. This can result in tightness or pain in muscles, headaches, and even jaw clenching. It can also occur as your body prepares you for fight-or-flight.

 

Tiredness

Tiredness may be caused by changes to circadian rhythm due to irregular sleep patterns associated with anxiety. It can also be caused by a decrease in serotonin levels due to anxiety. Low serotonin levels can lead to fatigue.

 

Trembling or shaking

Trembling or shaking may be caused by the release of adrenaline and cortisol which are both hormones that are released during anxiety. It can also be caused by constricted blood vessels and an increase in blood pressure related to anxiety.

 

Nausea

When the brain releases neurotransmitters to prepare the body for fight-or-flight, some of the neurotransmitters get into the digestive tract and upset the microbiome resulting in stomach symptoms.

 

Numbness and tingling

Numbness and tingling in the hands, feet, or face can be caused by anxiety-related changes to the vascular system. This may result from vasoconstriction (decreased blood flow), which is a common symptom of anxiety. These symptoms are often accompanied by sensations like numbness, pins and needles, prickling, or tingling.

 

Sweating and chills

Sweating is caused by the activation of the sweat glands in response to increased sympathetic nervous system activity due to anxiety. Your blood vessels narrow when you’re anxious, which can make you feel hot and result in sweating. Then as the sweat evaporates off your skin it makes you feel cold and can result in chills.

 

Weakness or fatigue

Weakness or fatigue can be caused by the release of adrenaline and cortisol which can both cause decreases in blood glucose levels. This, combined with the increased activity of the autonomic nervous system, may lead to feelings of weakness or fatigue.

These are some examples of the possible explanations for the physical symptoms of anxiety. Each person may experience different symptoms and have different causes for their case of anxiety.

It’s important to work with a healthcare professional to determine what is causing your specific symptoms and then develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Many different types of therapy can help people manage their anxiety and live a more fulfilling life. Treatment often includes learning coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help change the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to anxiety.

If you’re experiencing anxiety-related symptoms and would like to find out how CBT therapy can help you, please reach out to me for a free consultation.