From head to toe – and from the inside out – anxiety can have many physical effects on the body.
Living with anxiety can affect your health in a number of ways, and some are easier than others.
For example, you might find that fear causes you to isolate yourself from loved ones. But physical anxiety symptoms – like abdominal pain, nausea, and IBS symptoms, to name a few – can often be the reason why anxiety might isolate you.
Other common psychological anxiety symptoms such as tiredness, worry, and difficulty concentrating can also be associated with physical anxiety symptoms. You may react emotionally with worry because the fear feels in your chest. You may have trouble concentrating because fear makes it too uncomfortable to stay present in your body.
Anxiety can show up in almost any part of your body, but recognizing it can make it easier to deal with.
The hormone cortisol is responsible for several important body functions, including:
- Fighting infections
- Regulation of blood sugar
- Maintaining blood pressure
It is also known as your body’s “stress hormone”.
When you live with an anxiety disorder, your body can produce irregular amounts of cortisol. This can contribute to an above-average level of stress, work pressure, family problems or other uncomfortable (but not life-threatening) situations.
Another chemical your body produces when you are scared is adrenaline. You may already have an idea of what adrenaline is, how it is used in the context of an “adrenaline rush”.
While an adrenaline rush isn’t always considered harmful – it might think of activities like roller coasters or skydiving – too much adrenaline produced by the body in less relevant situations, like sitting on a train, can increase anxiety.
The overall effect of adrenaline is to prepare the body for the fight, flight, or freeze response during times of stress. But if nothing really life threatening is to be feared, too much adrenaline can only cause unnecessary worry.
Too much concern can also lead to higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. The relationship between these chemicals and anxiety is complex and almost cyclical.
There are many physical symptoms of anxiety – you may only experience one or more of them.
Headaches are common in people with anxiety. Research from 2010 suggests that episodic migraines, chronic daily headaches, and aura were significantly more common in people with anxiety than in people without fear.
To treat this symptom, consider taking a hot or cold shower or gently massaging your muscles. Stress management techniques like meditation could also help prevent anxiety-related headaches.
Stress can slow digestion and cause gas, pain, and constipation. But anxiety can also speed up digestion and cause diarrhea. In addition, stress can make digestive problems such as stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) worse.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to help some people deal with IBS related to anxiety.
When you are feeling anxious, your body is more likely to react in ways that affect the health of your heart. Anxiety can be related to the following heart conditions and symptoms:
- fast heart rate (tachycardia)
- increased blood pressure
- decreased heart rate variability
Reducing the amount of tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol you consume can also greatly improve the heart symptoms you experience when you are anxious.
Lower sexual desire and sexual aversion are linked to anxiety disorders. Fear can distract from erotic stimuli and impair sexual arousal. This can lead to difficulty straightening, sliding, or achieving orgasm.
If you already have performance anxiety, you may have difficulty finding and maintaining the right attitude about sex. Instead of enjoying yourself, you may find yourself overwhelmed by fear of fulfilling your partner’s expectations or your own.
Because fatigue is so subjective, the relationship between fatigue and anxiety is not clearly understood. However, research suggests that fatigue is moderately to severely associated with mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression.
While there is no perfect cure for fatigue, addressing your anxiety (if that’s a cause) can be helpful. Getting enough sleep, incorporating exercise into your day, and eating foods that make you feel good can also help.
Many chronic pain disorders are not uncommon alongside anxiety disorders. In addition, higher levels of anxiety are usually associated with pain in the body, such as chronic neck pain.
For example, you could live with fear and:
- Chest pain. Anxiety disorders – including panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder – are fairly common causes of chest pain.
- Fibromyalgia. This is a chronic condition that causes widespread muscle pain and fatigue, and is often associated with anxiety.
- Back pain. Some research has found that people with chronic back pain may have higher levels of anxiety, highlighting anxiety as a factor that could make the pain worse.
Many treatments for anxiety disorders can also improve chronic pain symptoms. This can include therapy or simply relaxation techniques such as exercise, yoga, and acupuncture.
A common symptom of anxiety is shortness of breath or rapid breathing, and this can cause sharp chest pain that sometimes occurs with anxiety.
Research suggests that even deep breathing can have a huge impact on this symptom. So, if you feel short of breath due to anxiety, taking a few moments to breathe deeply can make a difference.