Mental Health

10 Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety is not always mental, it can be physical too. Here are 10 signs of anxiety that can affect your body.

By URLife Team
25 Nov 2023

Everybody gets anxiety now and then. Yet, when it becomes a persistent, overpowering presence, disrupting your daily routine, it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder. According to a 2022 survey conducted by The National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) as published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, around 3.5 per cent of India's population grapple with various forms of stress or anxiety-related disorders. These disorders come in various forms, yet they all revolve around the central symptom of heightened fear or worry.


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Dr. Namita Singh, a consultant psychologist at Apollo Hospitals Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad speaks about the anxiety disorder in her informative YouTube video. She explains that anxiety is a common mental disorder in which an individual over-speculates, overthinks and worries excessively over a certain impending outcome in due course of time. For instance, a person may worry about a family member who has gone out for work, that something wrong may happen to him/her.  A student may even anticipate before even writing an exam that he/she may fail that test. 

When anxiety strikes, it's not just a mental experience—your entire body feels the impact. From head to toe, your systems can be affected due to the surge of stress hormones released by your body. 


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How Does Anxiety Affect The Body?

Anxiety isn't just about the mind; it can wreak havoc on the body too. The physical manifestations of anxiety are as uncomfortable as they are unpredictable—those who've endured a panic attack can attest to that. What complicates matters further is experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety without necessarily feeling emotionally anxious, or without being fully aware of it.

Essentially, anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response, an ancient survival mechanism designed to help in dangerous situations by either confronting the threat or fleeing from it. In the past, this response was useful against physical dangers like a predatory animal.

However, in cases of anxiety disorders, the perceived threat lies within one's own fears and worries. This prompts the sympathetic nervous system to rev up, controlling involuntary functions such as heart rate and breathing. As a result, the adrenal glands start pumping out stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

Normally, these symptoms ease when the perceived threat diminishes. Yet, if you grapple with persistent stress or worry, you might experience ongoing physical effects. This chronic state can increase the risk of health issues like chronic fatigue, heart problems, and a heightened risk of conditions such as heart attacks or strokes.

As your mind grapples with consuming worries or fears, it triggers the release of potent stress hormones. This mechanism is your body's evolutionary response to safeguard you from perceived threats. However, since most anxious thoughts don't usually stem from life-threatening situations, you're left contending with a cascade of symptoms that leave you feeling rattled, drained, or generally unwell.


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10 Physical Signs of Anxiety

1. Rapid Heartbeat (Tachycardia): Feeling your heart racing or pounding even without physical exertion. When faced with stress, your adrenal glands produce hormones like adrenaline (also known as epinephrine). In response, the receptors in your heart accelerate your heart rate. This heightened rate can be advantageous in genuine emergencies: it allows more blood to reach major muscles, theoretically aiding in fleeing or fighting a threat. However, in the context of anxiety, this racing heart might intensify feelings of anxiety, creating a cycle that perpetuates these sensations.


2. Shortness of Breath: In anxiety one can experience difficulty breathing or feeling like you can't take in enough air. According to a 2022 study issued in the National Library of Medicine, your bloodstream transports oxygen throughout your body. When your heart races, it boosts the circulation of your blood, prompting an increase in breathing to supply more oxygen. In situations requiring swift action, this response can be beneficial. However, rapid breathing—leading to hyperventilation, where you may feel breathless—can intensify many physical symptoms of anxiety. This occurs as the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body gets disrupted.

This is why techniques like belly or diaphragmatic breathing are often recommended. It involves slow, deep breathing that engages the diaphragm, a key muscle involved in breathing located beneath the lungs. Research indicates its positive impact on both physiological and psychological stress. By moderating your breathing pace, you create a better opportunity to attain the necessary oxygen without upsetting the body's balance.


3. Muscle Tension: Anxiety causes tightness or soreness in muscles, often in the neck, shoulders, or back. During the stress response, your muscles naturally tense up. Prolonged tension in specific body parts can result in discomfort and pain. Individuals experiencing anxiety often describe tightness in their neck, back, or shoulders. Additionally, clenching the jaw or overall muscle tension extending to the head can trigger headaches. This discomfort ranges from everyday tension headaches to severe migraines, especially in those susceptible to such conditions.


4. Profuse Nervous Sweating: Profuse sweating, especially on the palms, forehead, or underarms. Sweating excessively can be an added concern when you're already dealing with anxiety. The last thing you want is to fret over sweat stains or constantly wipe your palms when you're already feeling tense. However, sweating is a prevalent physical symptom of anxiety disorders. When your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, it affects sweat glands throughout your body. As the perspiration mixes with the bacteria naturally present on your skin, it can lead to increased body odour as well.


5. Gastrointestinal Issues: Anxiety tends to impact the gastrointestinal (GI) system significantly. Individuals with anxiety might experience general stomach discomfort, irregular bowel movements such as constipation or diarrhoea, and various digestive issues. Bloating and increased gassiness can also become frequent physical indications of anxiety. These GI troubles go to the gut-brain axis—a communication network between the brain and the enteric nervous system, which regulates digestion. This connection explains why stress can disturb your digestive patterns, affecting your bowel movements. Additionally, anxiety-driven lifestyle choices, such as consuming foods that don't agree with your system or lacking regular exercise, can further impact your digestion.


6. Insomnia or Sleep Problems: Difficulty sleeping is a common issue linked to anxiety. Elevated levels of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, typical in anxious states, hinder the ability to achieve restful sleep. The heightened arousal of your body might prevent it from relaxing adequately for sleep. Additionally, the racing thoughts associated with anxiety can further disrupt sleep patterns.

This issue often spirals into a vicious cycle: the struggle to attain sufficient sleep, coupled with potential reliance on caffeine the following day, amplifies anxiety levels. This heightened anxiety, in turn, compounds the challenge of falling and remaining asleep, perpetuating the cycle.

7. Nausea: Nausea stands as another prevalent physical symptom closely linked to the overall impact of anxiety on the digestive system. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry, it was discovered that individuals who frequently reported experiencing nausea were more than three times as likely to have an anxiety disorder compared to those who didn't frequently encounter nausea.

8. Heart palpitations: Heart palpitations, an intensification of the racing heart sensation discussed earlier, can reach a point where it feels as though your heart is skipping beats or pounding in your throat. According to a 2021 report by Cleveland Clinic, While this sensation might understandably heighten anxiety, it's essential to understand that, typically, heart palpitations in this context aren't considered dangerous and tend to subside as you begin to feel calmer. However, if heart palpitations accompany feelings of chest pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or confusion, seeking medical attention is recommended.


Related story: When To See A Doctor About Heart Palpitations

9. Changes in Appetite: Anxiety has a peculiar impact on appetite—it can either cause a complete loss of interest in food or trigger intense cravings for comfort food. As per a 2021 study by Harvard Medical School, hormones like adrenaline, activated during the fight-or-flight response, tend to suppress appetite. This response aligns with the evolutionary necessity to focus on survival rather than eating when faced with immediate threats.

However, hormones released due to chronic anxiety or stress, such as cortisol, can actually increase cravings for fatty and sugary foods. In essence, there's a scientific explanation for why a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream might seem more appealing when experiencing serious anxiety.


10. Disturbed Immune System: Chronic stress, including untreated chronic anxiety, has been shown to correlate with an increased vulnerability to illness. Research indicates a distinct connection between prolonged stress and a higher risk of falling ill. According to a 2023 study by The Mayo Clinic, when the fight-or-flight response persists for extended periods due to chronic anxiety, the immune system's functionality is compromised. Consequently, individuals might become more susceptible to common ailments such as the cold. However, other factors, like the overall strength of one's immune system and their adherence to good hygiene practices, also play pivotal roles in susceptibility to illnesses.


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How To Treat Anxiety Symptoms?

Treating anxiety and managing panic attacks is entirely feasible. Addressing the psychological aspects often results in improved physical well-being as well.
Implementing lifestyle changes at home can significantly impact how you feel. However, a diagnosed anxiety disorder may require professional intervention. The ideal treatment approach varies for each person and depends on specific symptoms. For those with access, a combination of therapy and medication often yields the most effective results. Some prevalent anxiety treatments include:

Therapy: Engaging with a mental health professional is a significant step, yet working with a therapist can be a vital tool in combating anxiety. Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is commonly recommended for addressing various types of anxiety disorders. Knowing precisely when it's time to seek therapy can be subjective. However, a helpful guideline is to consider seeking the guidance of a licensed mental health professional if anxiety symptoms start significantly interfering with your daily life.

Self-care: Professional help might not always be readily accessible for everyone dealing with anxiety. In such cases, practising self-care becomes crucial for managing symptoms and improving well-being. As mentioned earlier, techniques like deep breathing serve as significant stress relievers, given that hyperventilation can intensify various anxiety symptoms.


  • Benzodiazepines: These drugs act swiftly to calm the central nervous system, effectively reducing anxiety symptoms. 
  • Antidepressants: Varieties such as SSRIs and SNRIs can be beneficial for managing anxiety symptoms by influencing specific brain chemicals associated with mood regulation. These medications take longer to show effects and should not be halted suddenly without guidance from your prescribing doctor.
  • Beta-blockers: Primarily used for treating high blood pressure, beta blockers can also assist in alleviating physical symptoms of anxiety like rapid heartbeat, shaking, or trembling as needed.

It's crucial to note that each prescription anxiety medication option has its advantages and drawbacks. Finding the most suitable one may require some trial and discussion with your doctor or psychiatrist to determine the best fit for your needs.

At-home techniques can be incredibly beneficial for managing anxiety, whether it's an anxiety disorder or occasional feelings of anxiety. 

Here are some helpful strategies:

  • Relaxation Techniques: Incorporating practices such as deep breathing, guided imagery, biofeedback, or self-hypnosis can effectively reduce anxiety levels.
  • Music: Listening to soothing or preferred music can have a calming effect and help alleviate anxiety.
  • Meditative Movement: Engaging in activities like yoga or tai chi combines movement with mindfulness, aiding in relaxation and stress reduction.
  • Self-care: Prioritising self-care by maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, and ensuring adequate sleep can significantly impact anxiety levels.
  • Perspective and Humour: Sometimes acknowledging that certain things are beyond your control or finding a positive or humorous aspect in anxiety-inducing situations can help shift your perspective and reduce anxiety.

These techniques can serve as valuable tools in managing anxiety, offering ways to cope and regain a sense of control in challenging situations.

Taking that step to seek help for a potential anxiety disorder can be challenging, but it's incredibly worthwhile. Making an appointment to discuss your concerns with a healthcare provider is the first crucial step toward managing anxiety. With the right treatment and support, significant improvements in anxiety symptoms are possible, paving the way for a better quality of life. You're not alone in this journey, and seeking help is a courageous and essential decision for your well-being.


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