It’s Not All In Our Head: Physical Symptoms Of Anxiety

Though anxiety is considered a mental health condition, it can have a marked impact on our physical health. Sometimes the physical anxiety symptoms we experience can further increase how anxious we feel.

Understanding the link between our anxiety and our physical health can help us to make sense of the things we experience.

It's Not All In Our Head: Physical Symptoms Of Anxiety

Aches And Pains

Headaches, muscle aches and aches in places we didn’t know existed can be symptoms of anxiety.

When we’re anxious, we often tense up. This is part of our ‘fight or flight’ response. We perceive danger so our body tenses up in preparation to fight or run away.

The problem is, when we have anxiety, our fight or flight mechanism is triggered repeatedly. Rather than running away or fighting and then releasing the tension that we were holding, we’re constantly tense. Our muscles are told to clench over and over again. Sometimes we’re conscious of it, sometimes we’re not. When we’re conscious of it, it can be helpful to breathe out and gently unclench all of the tension we’re holding.

It can even happen in our sleep; we wake up with sore muscles. We might find we grind our teeth, too, and that we often wake up in the morning with a sore jaw. If that sounds familiar then it might be helpful to speak to a dentist about how we can protect our teeth.

Bladder And Bowel Anxiety Symptoms

It’s easier to run away from stuff when our bladder and bowels are empty. Our body has a nifty trick for this one in the form of diarrhoea and multiple trips to the toilet.

When our anxiety is triggered, our body receives the ‘we’re going to need to run’ message, sees our full bowel, things ‘nope, don’t want to have to deal with that when escaping from a volcano’ and empties it. Stress can also cause our digestive contractions to increase, exacerbating the problem.

Unfortunately, our body can’t distinguish between ‘I need to run from a volcano’ anxiety and ‘I’m nervous about catching a bus’ anxiety. Regardless of the trigger, our body gets the message to clear our bladder and bowels.

At the other end of the spectrum is constipation. This can be a physical symptom of anxiety, too. Long-term anxiety puts our body under constant stress, so stress hormones are constantly released. This reduces the blood flow to our gut and slows the muscle contractions involved in our digestion.

Cardiac Anxiety Symptoms

When we’re anxious, our heart speeds up to push our blood around our body at a higher rate, ensuring that our limbs have enough oxygen for our muscles to work effectively. If we’re going to fight a polar bear or outrun a jaguar, we need our limbs to be at peak performance.

Sometimes we call heartbeats that become more noticeable ‘heart palpitations‘.

Chest pain can be another anxiety symptom This can be part of the muscle tightening that causes our other aches and pains. It can feel like a heart attack, which can (understandably) further increase our anxiety making our symptoms even worse.

Digestive System

Digesting our lunch isn’t a vital task when we’re fighting or flighting. This means that our body redirects resources (such as blood and energy) away from our digestive system and towards more ‘vital’ body mechanisms such as our running muscles. The muscles involved in our digestion don’t work as effectively as they would were we not anxious, slowing our digestion.

Fight-or-flight is supposed to be a short-term thing. But when we have anxiety, it can become a longer-term thing. Rather than briefly slowing our digestive system down (which we probably wouldn’t even notice), our digestive system is affected long term.

This can lead to constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, indigestion, and gas.

Another big problem is stomach acid. Anxiety ramps up our stomach acid production, and excess stomach acid can cause reflux, heartburn, and indigestion.

Sometimes we feel sick almost all of the time. It might feel like our food and drink almost gets ‘stuck’ because of the reduction in blood flow to our gut.

Anxiety can also cause our gut bacteria to become unbalanced and can affect our sleep, which is crucial for digestion.

Longer-term, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic indigestion, chronic heartburn, and stomach ulcers, can all be exacerbated by anxiety.

Dizziness

Dizziness is a common anxiety symptom. It can range from the relatively mild, to feeling disorientated, unsteady, and crashing into things. For some of us, this dizziness will be relatively short-lived. For others, it can be persistent.

Frustratingly, as well as dizziness being a symptom of anxiety, it can also be a cause. Feeling dizzy can make us panic, resulting in an anxiety spike.

There are several potential causes for anxiety-related dizziness.

When our breathing becomes too fast or slow, it can cause the carbon dioxide levels in our blood to go a bit wonky.

When our heart pumps more quickly, the blood flow changes it creates can leave us feeling off-balance.

For those of us living under constant high levels of stress, our nervous system might begin to act a little oddly, worsening our dizziness and causing headaches. Headaches and migraines can feed into our dizziness, too.

As any of us who’ve ever had a few late nights will know, lack of sleep can leave us feeling ‘out of it’. Sleep problems are often worse when our anxiety levels are high.

Finally, side effects of anti-anxiety medication can include feeling dizzy; it’s always worth checking with a healthcare professional if that’s something we’re worried about.

Steadying our breathing, self-soothing, balancing our diary to try and reduce our overall stress levels, implementing a regular bedtime, drinking enough, eating enough, and reviewing our medication as needed can all help to reduce those dizzy feelings.

Dry Mouth And Swallowing

When we breathe through our mouth, the air can dry our mouth out which can be uncomfortable. Breathing more quickly can exacerbate this. When we live with reflux problems, this can be even worse because the excess acid can stop our glands from producing as much saliva.

Other things that can lead to a dry mouth include medication side effects, dehydration, and our body pushing fluid to other areas as part of its fight or flight system.

We’re often more aware of our various bodily sensations when we’re anxious. Sometimes we become so aware that we forget how to do things we would normally do automatically (like breathing and swallowing). We start trying to do them consciously, but it’s not easy. Thinking about how to swallow, for example, can make it difficult to swallow.

Hormone-Related Anxiety Symptoms

Cortisol and adrenaline can be called ‘stress hormones’. They help us cope with danger and stress, but when they make an appearance during relatively ‘normal’ activities (like texting someone), they flood our brain leaving us feeling anxious and frazzled.

They’re not the only hormones involved in managing our anxiety levels. Estrogen can boost our serotonin levels, improving our anxiety. But progesterone can make us super-anxious. Low levels of testosterone can also be linked to higher levels of anxiety.

Our thyroid hormones can boost our anxiety levels, too. If we have an overactive thyroid then we might find that we have particularly high anxiety and regular panic attacks.

Those who have a monthly cycle might find it helpful to track their cycle and mood to see whether there are any patterns, and then to speak to a health professional about their options going forward.

Hypersensitivity

Hypersensitivity is an anxiety symptom. It’s when our senses are over-active. The input we get from the world around us can be overwhelming. Processing information becomes difficult, and our anxiety climbs higher and higher.

Heightened senses are very useful when we’re in a dangerous situation but they’re a lot less useful when we’re sat on the sofa trying to wind down.

We can do things to dampen our senses, which can help to bring our anxiety down. By thinking about how each of our senses is affected, we can try different things to reduce the impact of hypersensitivity when it crops up, for example, we could use noise-cancelling headphones or a weighted blanket.

Immune System Anxiety Symptoms

When we’re stressed, our brain tells our endocrine (hormone) system to release cortisol (one of our stress hormones). It’s released to help us in the face of danger but dampens our immune system at the same time.

It does this in two ways. Firstly, it decreases the number of white blood cells we have. White blood cells help to fight infection so we become more susceptible to illness. Secondly, it reduces the amount of inflammation we have. This might sound like a good thing, and in the short-term it is. But long-term this suppresses our immune system. Our immune cells are so used to having cortisol flying around that they become insensitive to it, weakening our body’s defences.

The results of this vary. We might find that we catch more colds. Food allergies are more common. The risk of things like autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure and heart disease are more likely.

We might choose to take probiotics to help our immune system, but if we’re ever unsure about whether or not we should take something it’s worth checking in with a health professional.

Pins, Needles, And Numbness

Pins, needles, and numbness are common anxiety symptoms.

When our blood supply is directed away from anything not vital for fighting or flighting, we can feel numbness or pins and needles in ‘non-essential’ areas (such as our fingers).

Our flight or fight response can cause pins, needles and numbness in other ways, too. This includes having too much carbon dioxide or too little oxygen in our bloodstream, muscle tension, circulation problems, and inconsistent neuron reactions.

They could also be a medication side effect. If that’s the case then it’s something we need to speak to our prescriber about.

Kind Words for Unkind Days

Shakiness

Anxiety can cause shakiness, almost as if we’re vibrating. Our body is flooded with adrenaline to help us fight or flight. This wakes our nerves and muscles up and fills us with energy helping us to cope with imminent danger.

It’s worth being aware that some medications can have shakiness as a side effect, too. We should always speak to a health professional if we’re concerned.

Sleep

Whether we struggle to get to sleep, wake up during the night, wake up early in the morning, or all three, most of us aren’t strangers to long, broken nights. Anxiety can play havoc with our sleep.

Whizzing thoughts can make it hard to nod off and anxious dreams can wake us up when we do finally get to sleep.

Being geared up to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ can make it worse. Our body senses danger. It doesn’t sense that it’s midnight and we have an early start tomorrow.

Following sleep hygiene principles can improve our sleep no end. It’s also worth noting what we watch and listen to before we go to bed. If we’re watching thrillers and true crime documentaries, we might find it harder to sleep than if we’ve watched or listened to something light.

Temperature Dysregulation

Another anxiety symptom is our temperature going all over the place.

When our fight or flight response kicks in, our blood vessels narrow. This can heat our body super quickly because this narrowing moves them away from our skin, preventing heat loss.

We’re likely to sweat more when anxious. Sweat takes heat away from the surface of our skin when it evaporates, cooling us down. If we have a hot flush, our sweat response kicks in, but if this dies down quickly we might find ourselves shivering as we’ve lost too much heat through sweat.

Wearing layers is often a good plan because we can externally respond to the temperature we feel. Staying hydrated can help us to control our body temperature from the inside, too.

Vision Problems

Shimmers, blind spots, seeing light trails, visual ‘snow’, and blurriness can all be caused by anxiety.

Blurred vision can go with dizziness. When we have more oxygen than we need (due to anxious breathing), blurry vision is our body’s way of letting us know.

Tunnel vision happens because our body is sensing danger and wants to focus in on the ‘thing’ we need to deal with, ignoring anything else around us.

Chronic stress can put a strain on our eyes, putting them in permanent ‘danger mode’ without any recovery time. This can make our eyes feel dry and painful.

Other vision problems are usually related to our stress response, as our body desperately tries to make sense of everything and level our systems out.

Coping With Anxiety Symptoms

Self-soothing, lowering the amount of information hitting us at any one time, slowing our breathing, exercise (where appropriate), a balanced diet, and a regular sleep schedule can all help us to manage the physical anxiety symptoms we feel.

If we’re ever concerned, we should speak to a health professional, because though each of these symptoms can be caused by anxiety, they could also be caused by other things. We deserve help and support whatever it is that’s causing our symptoms.

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