It is normal to experience stress and anxiety in our lives. Whether we are worrying about meeting a deadline at work, getting the kids to school on time, speaking in front of an audience or wondering how to pay the bills this month, there are many triggers of stress and anxiety.
There is a difference between short-term anxiety, such as being anxious about public speaking, and longer-term anxiety related to life situations such as chronic money shortages, job stress, relationship issues and ongoing health problems. Every person is different and experiences the intensity of their anxiety in a unique way.
We usually think of anxiety as a mental health issue. However, anxiety can create real physical symptoms in your body that can carry their own health consequences if your anxiety becomes intense and chronic. Knowing the physical symptoms of anxiety can help you better deal with your own situation, and take steps to help your mind and body to cope with the challenges you are facing.
Although stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably when we speak, they are not the same thing. Anxiety is a response to stress(1).
Stress is your body’s reaction to a situation. It includes the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones create physical changes in your body that prepare you to react quickly to whatever you are facing. This chain reaction response is commonly called “fight or flight.” Stress is an immediate response to a situation.
Anxiety, however, is a little different. Normal anxiety is your mental reaction to the stressful situation, which may be accompanied by some of these short term physical symptoms:
Anxiety becomes a more serious mental health concern when your reaction to the situation lasts well beyond the event that triggered it. This longer-term, disproportionate response to stress is what we more typically think of as anxiety. It may be expressed as a sudden and severe burst of physical and mental distress such as a panic attack, or it may range from mild to chronic levels of anxiety. The thing to remember is that all anxiety is a form of stress, but not all stress results in anxiety.
Every person’s experience of anxiety is a little different. You may experience some or all of the following physical symptoms of anxiety:
When you are stressed, the release of adrenaline and cortisol hormones causes your heart to beat faster. This is a normal response to a stressful situation. You may feel like your heart is racing or fluttering. When you move away from the stressor, or you resolve the problem, your heart rate returns to normal.
However people who experience anxiety over longer periods of time can have elevated heart rates that don’t subside. Perhaps they replay the stressful event over and over in their minds, or they remain focused on the event long after it is over. Whatever the cause of the extended anxiety, the physical response can lead to longer-term health issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and heart attack or stroke.
A 2019 review involving more than 32,300 participants determined that persistent generalized anxiety disorder was a predictor for the development of coronary artery disease(2). The presence of generalized anxiety disorder was associated with a 2.09 percent risk for developing coronary artery disease. However, those treated for the disorder had only a 1.6 percent risk, or 20 percent reduction in their risk, for heart disease. This illustrates how important it is to treat anxiety in relation to long term health outcomes.
As your heart rate increases during stress, your breathing becomes more rapid. Short shallow breaths fuel the stress response throughout your body, which is why meditation and other calming interventions call for slow deep breaths instead.
Shortness of breath can be a sign of serious health issues, which makes experiencing it as a consequence of anxiety so frightening. Is it anxiety? Or is it something much worse?
A cross-sectional study involving 1180 women showed that 22 percent of the women who had anxiety also had doctor-diagnosed asthma (3). Respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing and difficulty sleeping, were significantly worse in participants suffering from anxiety, depression, or anxiety and depression combined. Anxiety makes dealing with asthma much worse.
Stress causes your muscles to tense up. Mild levels of anxiety may cause you to tremble or you may experience muscle stiffness or cramping. Anxiety that extends over longer periods of time can result in significant muscle aches, tension and pain. Some people experience it as an overall aching of their bodies. Others find the tension is concentrated in their back, neck, jaw, chest or stomach.
In contrast, muscle relaxation techniques can reduce the symptoms of anxiety. A randomized controlled study of patients with dental anxiety showed that progressive muscle relaxation techniques reduced anxiety levels for dental procedures(4). Patients receiving 20 minutes of muscle relaxation therapy each week (for four weeks) before their periodontal treatments had reduced anxiety, as well as reduced blood pressure, pulse rate and salivary cortisol compared to the control group that received 15 minutes of dental hygiene advice each week. The significant reduction in anxiety levels and physical symptoms was still evident three months later.
The physical symptoms of anxiety can leave your body at higher risk for infection. A weakened immune system can leave you vulnerable to bacteria and viruses, and you may develop more severe symptoms once infected than people without anxiety(5).
In a study published in 2015, researchers followed up on 18,000 people exposed to drinking water contamination in 2010 at a site in Belgium(6). They found that pre-existing anxiety and depression was associated with more severe gastrointestinal symptoms from the contaminated water. These same individuals had a higher rate of long term complications, such as developing irritable bowel syndrome. This study underscores the significance of anxiety on the body’s ability to fight gastrointestinal infection.
Normal levels of anxiety are short-lived and associated directly with the stressful situation you find yourself in. For example, it is normal to be anxious about public speaking and to experience physical symptoms of anxiety in the hours or days before or after the event. But if your anxiety extends well beyond the triggering event in either duration or intensity of your response, then your anxiety level is higher than what would be expected.
If your anxiety symptoms are present for long periods of time, it is a good idea to consult a healthcare provider to rule out any underlying physical illnesses and disease. There are many types of anxiety, and appropriate treatment options vary based on the type, duration and severity of your symptoms(7). A healthcare provider can help you determine if you need a doctor-assisted program for your anxiety or whether home care options are right for you.
Anxiety is a treatable health issue. Recognizing the factors and situations that trigger your stress is a good first step to finding solutions that work for you. Things you can try at home includejournaling, meditation, gardening, yoga and cooking healthy meals.
Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, and this can be as simple as walking in a park or forest. A 2019 review of 10 field studies on the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” indicated that as little as 15 minutes of time spent in a forest environment or park could be beneficial for reducing anxiety.
Supplements can also help improve your sense of well-being and reduce your physical symptoms of anxiety:
Anxiety is not just in your mind. It creates physical symptoms in your body that can range from mild problems to chronic health conditions. If you experience persistent feelings of anxiety, it is important to seek the help of a healthcare provider to rule out underlying causes of disease.
Persistent anxiety can strongly undermine your overall health, and lead to more significant symptoms and infections. You may be able to find relief using simple strategies at home that can effectively lower your anxiety levels, or try supplements for a few weeks to determine if they can provide the relief you need.
Sue Senger -Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice