There are many physical symptoms that can result from anxiety. These can include sweating hands, shaking legs, and a fast heart rate.
Moderate anxiety levels are part of the human survival instinct. When someone has exposure to a perceived threat, their body triggers a response to help them focus and spur them into action.
However, some people struggle with constant or overwhelming anxiety during their daily lives when there is no threat. They may feel nervous, worry about everyday events, and experience physical symptoms of anxiety that make life challenging.
This article explores anxiety and how it affects the body. It looks at the physical symptoms of anxiety and why they happen. It also discusses some potential treatments and when to get advice from a healthcare professional.
Anxiety is the body’s response to a stressful situation, such as attending a significant event or speaking in public. It is normal to feel nervous, tense, or apprehensive in these circumstances.
However, some individuals experience these emotions in situations that are not typically stress-inducing. They may have feelings of extreme and overwhelming anxiety, which may cause heart-pounding panic and irrational fears. These people may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are common. They are more prevalent among females than males.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is characterized by repetitive irrational thoughts that cause an individual to repeatedly perform specific behaviors in a particular way.
- Panic disorder: Someone may experience random, recurring panic attacks that consist of a sudden period of intense anxiety and fear.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Individuals who have experienced a traumatic event may develop PTSD. PTSD manifests as flashbacks, nightmares, uncontrollable thoughts, and severe anxiety.
- Illness anxiety disorder: Formerly known as hypochondria, a person may have illness anxiety disorder when they are overly anxious about their health and imagine that they have physical ailments.
- Phobia: People with phobias experience a high level of fear due to a specific situation, activity, object, or event.
- Social anxiety disorder: This disorder affects people in and before social situations and interactions with others. It can cause overwhelming fear.
- Separation anxiety disorder: If someone fears being away from a particular person or place, they may have a separation anxiety disorder. This is prevalent among young children but affects adults as well.
Although anxiety disorders come under the umbrella of mental health conditions, they can also cause physical reactions.
In addition to distress, fear, and worry, a person may have physical symptoms of anxiety, including:
- a dry mouth
- lightheadedness or feeling faint
- hot flashes or chills
- shortness of breath
- tingling or numbness
- an increased heart rate
- gastrointestinal symptoms, such as constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion
- changes in appetite
Panic attacks can occur suddenly. If a person experiences a panic attack, they may feel that they are in extreme danger or are losing control.
People can have strong physical reactions during a panic attack, and they may even feel as though they are having a heart attack.
Some symptoms of a panic attack may include:
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- problems swallowing, or a feeling of choking
- excessive sweating
- a racing heart rate
- feeling faint and nauseous
- feeling that death is imminent
- hot flashes
- numbness or tingling in the fingers, arms, or toes
- stomach pain
- a feeling of cold in the hands and feet
- feeling detached from the body
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- blurry vision
Why the body responds to anxiety
Stressful life events can trigger panic attacks. However, panic attacks do not always have an obvious cause.
The physical symptoms of panic attacks are due to the body’s fight-or-flight response, which generates fear and anxiety.
During the fight-or-flight response, an individual responds to authentic and unreal danger in the same way and with the same physiological reactions. For example, their heart and breathing rates increase, they have a surge of adrenaline, and their senses become hyperalert.
A person’s body responds in this way because it is preparing to either fight the threat or run away from it.
The increase in blood flow prepares the muscles to flee from danger and allows the brain to focus and make quick decisions. The rapid breathing provides the body with more oxygen, ready to escape.
However, these things may cause the individual to feel as though they cannot get enough air, which may result in further feelings of panic.
The long-term effects
Anxiety disorders can cause people to avoid situations that they know trigger negative emotions. They may feel ashamed that they cannot live their lives as everyone else does. In turn, this may lead to increased social isolation and further withdrawal.
When this happens, a person may enter a cycle of living in fear of fear, meaning that the fear of a panic attack causes them to have more panic attacks.
If someone has chronic anxiety, they are always on high alert. This may negatively affect their cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and respiratory health.
If a person experiences panic and anxiety, they should talk with a healthcare professional. They can rule out the possibility of other conditions and physical causes, such as:
- mitral valve prolapse
- hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid gland
- hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar levels
- stimulant use, such as that of amphetamines, cocaine, or caffeine
- medication withdrawal
Healthcare professionals can help people cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety by suggesting a combination of medications and psychotherapy.
Medications do not cure anxiety, but they help can people manage their symptoms more effectively and prevent them from affecting their daily routine.
The type of medication a healthcare professional recommends may differ depending on the individual’s symptoms and the severity of their anxiety.
One group of medications that healthcare professionals may prescribe to treat anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder and panic disorder are benzodiazepines. Examples of benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium).
Benzodiazepines act as a sedative and slow down a person’s bodily functions. They are a short-term anxiety treatment because they have the potential to become habit forming.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressant medications that may also help treat anxiety. SSRIs increase the concentration of the neurotransmitter serotonin by affecting regular serotonin uptake.
Some SSRIs that healthcare professionals prescribe for anxiety include:
- citalopram (Celexa)
- escitalopram (Lexapro)
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
Beta-blockers such as propranolol (Inderal) are another type of medication that
Beta-blockers act on the parasympathetic system to reduce heart rate. This may help in stressful situations, such as when giving a speech or attending an interview, by providing relief from anxiety’s physical symptoms.
CBT can help people focus on their fears realistically and overcome their panic.
Exposure therapy allows people to experience panic and anxiety in a safe, controlled environment so that they can learn to cope with it.
After a healthcare professional rules out any medical cause for the symptoms, they may refer a person to a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or another specialized mental healthcare professional.
They may be able to provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, which may or may not include medications.
The initial examination will investigate:
- the person’s medical history
- the symptoms they are experiencing
- any medications they are taking
- any other issues they have that relate to their mental health
The mental healthcare professional will also carry out a routine physical exam.
The outlook for people with an anxiety-related diagnosis is often positive.
Treatment may incorporate a range of different approaches, such as self-management strategies, medications, and psychotherapy. During their treatment and beyond, people should also try to minimize their stress levels.
These approaches can help people manage their anxiety symptoms more effectively and improve their overall quality of life.
However, success rates may vary depending on any coexisting conditions the person has and the severity of their anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are common. They usually cause feelings of unease and nervousness. They can also cause a mixture of physical and mental symptoms.
Managing the physical symptoms of anxiety may require medications (such as benzodiazepines and beta-blockers), a form of psychotherapy (such as CBT or exposure therapy), or a combination of both methods.