Anxiety may make you feel intense fear, panic, or nervousness, but it’s not just in your head. When you’re experiencing anxiety, you can also suffer from a wide range of physical symptoms and feelings.
When we encounter a stressful or scary situation, or are taking on a challenge, our brain releases stress hormones to prepare our body to take action (sometimes known as the “fight or flight” response).
Stress hormones sharpen mental focus and awareness, and can also affect us physically to make sure we’re ready to act quickly—impacting heart rate and blood pressure, breathing, digestion, and other organs.
When you have an anxiety disorder, this stress response can occur often, or all the time, even when there is no immediate stressful or scary event happening.
Most people will experience some anxiety symptoms in their daily life, but the feelings are usually brief. When the stressful situation has passed, they feel calm again.
Their hormone levels go back to normal, and their brain goes back to functioning as it usually does.
Some people have a tougher time winding down after a stressful trigger or staying calm over the course of a day.
Their brain releases stress hormones over and over again, overwhelming their body and making it difficult for them to function normally.
When someone has anxiety that does not go away—or gets harder to manage over time—they may be suffering from a medical condition called an anxiety disorder.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms and are curious to see if they might be related to a mental health condition like anxiety, read on.
In this article, I’ll cover what anxiety is, and the different types of anxiety.
I’ll list the physical symptoms of anxiety. I’ll provide ways to tell if you’re suffering from anxiety, or something else.
I’ll discuss the long-term physical effects of anxiety, how to treat the physical symptoms, and how to manage your anxiety and its physical symptoms.
Finally, I’ll discuss when it’s time to talk to a doctor or online psychiatrist about anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a part of your body’s natural fight-or-flight response to a stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situation.
When you feel under threat, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus signals to the rest of your body that it needs to be prepared to act suddenly.
Your nervous system responds by sending signals to your adrenal glands to prompt them to produce two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
Together, these stress hormones prepare your body to act.
This can make you feel irritable, agitated, restless, or tense. These hormones activate body organs essential to your survival and suppress other less important organs from taking too much energy.
For most people, anxiety is natural, mild, and fades away when it is no longer helpful or appropriate.
For people who suffer from an anxiety disorder, though, mental and physical symptoms can come on at inappropriate or unexpected times, even when there isn’t a threat or stressful situation to react to.
People with anxiety disorders may feel levels of stress at these times that feel intense or overwhelming, and affect day-to-day functioning.
Types of Anxiety
Not all anxiety disorders are the same, and they aren’t always alone: Some patients suffer from more than one at a time. Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): When suffering from GAD, patients experience chronic anxiety, worry, or fear on most days for an extended period—six months or longer.
- Panic disorder: Patients with panic disorder suffer from episodes of extreme fear or terror called panic attacks that may feel like they come out of nowhere. During a panic attack, you may feel dizzy or light-headed, be sweating and shaking, have shortness of breath or hyperventilate, notice an increased heart rate, heart palpitations, chest pain, or a sense of overwhelming doom. Some people have other physical symptoms with this including nausea, tingling of the hands and feet, or uncontrollable crying.
- Phobias: Phobias are a severe fear or aversion to something or someone that is out of proportion to the risk associated with the trigger. Some phobias are so severe that avoiding the object or situation you fear may interfere with daily life or cause you to avoid doing things you enjoy.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Patients with OCD have recurrent and intrusive ideas or thoughts called obsessions. Many people with OCD develop repetitive behavioral patterns, called compulsions, in response to these obsessive thoughts—some compulsions are hand washing, counting, and cleaning rituals.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): People who experience or witness traumatic events may have a variety of symptoms after that event, including anxiety symptoms. Their anxiety symptoms may be similar to some of the other anxiety disorders listed here, and may also include specific symptoms triggered by things or people that remind the sufferer of the traumatic event.
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD): When someone has SAD, they have a social phobia. They may feel intense fear of being humiliated in social situations, public speaking, or performing in front of others. Some sufferers of SAD isolate or avoid social situations.
Both emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety can range from mild to moderate, severe, and finally, panic.
If you are experiencing a form of anxiety that does not impact your day-to-day activities or long-term wellness, your symptoms are usually considered mild.
When anxiety begins to impact you on most days, is affecting your social life, school performance, or career, or is severe enough that you find yourself avoiding activities, it is generally moderate to severe, and it may be worth looking into treatment.
What are the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety?
Individual experiences with anxiety can vary. Some people do not notice physical symptoms, some have only one or two, and some will have many symptoms.
Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Increased heart rate, heart palpitations, chest pain or tightness, or a pounding heart
- Increased blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or hyperventilation
- Muscle tension or weakness
- Muscle tremors or trembling
- Stomachache, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
- Headache or pounding head
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty sleeping (insomnia) or nightmares
- Tingling of the hands and face (often associated with hyperventilating)
Symptoms of anxiety disorders can sometimes mirror or mask those of physical illness, so it is important to speak with a health care provider to determine if there is a physical cause for your symptoms.
If you experience heart palpitations, chest pain, or a pounding heart and you have heart disease or any other reason to suspect you are having a heart attack, dial 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.
Is it Anxiety or Something Else? How to Tell
Doctors characterize anxiety as intense worry, fear, or nervousness. People diagnosed with an anxiety disorder have symptoms that are so intrusive or excessive that they disrupt their lives.
Some people with anxiety disorders have trouble functioning normally without treatment.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms and are curious about whether or not they relate to anxiety, talk to a healthcare provider.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are similar to those of other mental and physical conditions, so it’s vital to get an expert opinion if you do not feel well.
Long Term Physical Effects of Anxiety
When you feel threatened or stressed, your brain releases stress hormones that affect the functioning of your heart, lungs, muscles, digestion, and other body systems.
In the short term, these changes are manageable, and in some circumstances, helpful. But if your brain regularly floods your body with hormones over an extended period of time, it can have a negative effect on your health.
Researchers are still studying how stress hormones impact long-term health, but some possible effects of chronic high stress levels include:
- Increased risk of heart disease or heart attack
- Increased risk for memory loss
- Increased risk of migraines
- Decreased ability to fight off infection and disease
- Contributing to chronic digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome
How to Treat the Physical Symptoms
If you are experiencing physical symptoms related to anxiety and are looking for relief, there are several treatment options:
Prescription drugs, including antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), can help combat anxiety, as can other types of medication, including some antihistamines, benzodiazepines (such as Xanax), and buspirone.
It can take time for a prescription medication to begin to work.
It can also take time to find the best medication and dose for your individual needs. Your healthcare provider will work with you over time to find the right medication and dose for your symptoms.
All medications for anxiety work best along with psychotherapy or counseling. Psychotherapy alone can be an effective treatment for anxiety in some cases.
Depending on your specific needs, you may benefit from:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): A therapy practice that helps patients change thought patterns, regulate their emotions, and develop coping skills to improve their mental, physical and emotional well-being.
- Exposure therapy: A treatment that allows patients to confront their anxiety triggers and overcome their fears.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy: A specific therapy that emphasizes mindfulness, interpersonal skills, and emotional regulation.
There are many lifestyle changes that can help manage your anxiety.
For example, getting enough sleep and exercise, and eating nutritious foods can all be useful in regulating your symptoms and curbing distress.
In addition, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and other mood-altering substances can be helpful, as can practicing meditation and mindfulness techniques.
Journaling, time in nature, and spending time with a loved one or trusted friend can also help with anxiety. You may find an anxiety support group, either in-person or online, to be a helpful resource as well.
When to Talk to a Healthcare Provider
Everyone feels nervous or stressed sometimes, but feelings of anxiety should not get in the way of your ability to function and enjoy life.
If your emotional or physical symptoms feel intense, intrusive, or excessive, and are impacting you at school, work, or in relationships, talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional about what you are experiencing.
You can start controlling your anxiety and get access to the medication you need with K Health.
Starting at $12/month, get an evaluation for anxiety, prescriptions for mental health medications if appropriate, plus unlimited provider visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment here.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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What are the five major types of anxiety disorders? (2014). https://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html