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It is no secret that anxiety can mess with your mind. However, not many people know that it can also trigger multiple physical symptoms that can be just as unpredictable and unpleasant. People who have gone through the experience of an anxiety-induced panic attack can vouch for how these physical symptoms can make their life miserable, even if they are temporary. To complicate things even more, some people develop these physical symptoms without an emotional component, making it hard to link them with anxiety.

But how does a mental illness like anxiety trigger physical manifestations? When your brain is constantly ruminating over fear or worry, it signals the body to secrete cortisol, a powerful hormone that regulates stress. The secretion of cortisol is the body’s way of protecting you from perceived harm or threat. But since there is no underlying threat in most cases, your body triggers a cascade of physical symptoms that may make you feel exhausted, freaked out, or scared.

So what are the effects of anxiety on physical health? Is your tight chest, tense jaw, or sore throat anxiety-related? This article explains some of the anxiety’s most common physical manifestations and provides tips to start feeling better.

Because each person handles stress differently, the physical manifestations associated with anxiety may differ from one individual to another. However, some of the most common ones include the following:

Muscle Tension

Many people complain about how their body feels stiffer and tensed when they are under stress. This muscle tension is associated with mild levels of anxiety, and it usually lasts for a brief period and diminishes as soon as the threat passes. In this case, the most commonly affected muscle groups include the neck and back muscles.

On the contrary, people with a diagnosed anxiety disorder suffer from much worse muscle tension characterized by unrelenting pains and aches in the neck, back, jaw, and shoulder muscles. Sometimes, the high levels of stress may lead to restless fidgeting or even teeth grinding. Another difference between muscle tension due to anxiety disorder and normal muscle tension is that the former does not subside as the threat passes. In fact, it tends to persist until a person seeks treatment for it.

Digestive Issues

The gut is an important system that is primarily affected by rising anxiety levels. Some common effects of anxiety on the digestive system include outright nausea, unsettling stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhoea. Sometimes, these symptoms become severe and persistent and may start negatively impacting day-to-day functioning. Some people may start worrying about the presence of a medical illness due to these digestive symptoms.

Dizziness and Headache

The high level of psychological distress due to anxiety can lead to persistent fears and worries about specific situations. Your mind may keep anticipating these situations and jump from one issue to another one over and over again. As a result, you may feel dizzy or have a severe headache.

Irritability

In some people, the edginess due to anxiety may be expressed:

  • Behaviourally in the form of irritability
  • Physically in the form of shakiness or trembling

Some people may fidget or become visibly restless as the stress levels keep increasing.

Fatigue

Experiencing chronic worry can be exhausting, and, as a result, most people with a diagnosed anxiety disorder are often exhausted. Others feel exhausted as their constant worries do not let them sleep peacefully at night. In the long run, this drastically impacts their physical health and psychological well-being.

Shortness of Breath

Anxiety and panic attacks commonly cause people to feel a sense of shortness of breath. Such people often feel like their airway has become narrower and may start breathing harder to compensate for it.

Altered Appetite

Anxiety affects appetite differently in different people. It may cause people to lose interest in eating or force them to involve in comfort eating. As the body triggers the fight-or-flight response, hormones like adrenaline shut down the appetite. On the other hand, hormones like cortisol may ramp up your interest in sugary, fatty food, forcing you to eat more than you usually would.

Nervous Sweating

Many people start wiping their palms or get pit stains when they start worrying. This increased sweating also activates a fight-or-flight response that increases your body temperature to prepare you for a perceived threat. A rise in internal body temperature signals the body to turn on the cooling mechanism to protect its muscles and organs, resulting in sweating.

Anxiety can quickly become a regular part of your life, sometimes to the extent that you may not even notice how it’s physically hurting you. For example, it often increases bodily tension, triggering tightness in the specific neck, shoulders, and back areas. Some people may be aware of how anxiety is putting strain on their bodies but still struggle to manage it daily.

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to manage the physical manifestations of anxiety. These include:

Change Your Mind

A considerable part of the discomfort and fear triggering the physical symptoms of anxiety are due to your thoughts. For example, as you develop anxiety-related symptoms like trembling, excessive sweating, choking sensations or shaking, you may fear that they will lose control over yourself.

Anxiety may also make you feel afraid of its physical symptoms and the consequences they can lead to, such as a medical emergency. Such fears, in turn, heighten the sense of anxiety, possibly leading to more panic and anxiety. This vicious cycle of anxiety keeps on making your life miserable and your physical symptoms worse unless you change what fuels it: your thoughts and how you respond to them.

Following are some ways in which you can change your response to negative thoughts:

  • Self-reflection, such as through journaling or tracking your anxiety, which helps you explore your automatic reactions to the physical symptoms of anxiety
  • Affirmations, characterised by telling yourself that “I am going to be okay” or “I have a hold over my anxiety” to counteract the negative symptoms of anxiety.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

Research reveals that exercise and nutrition can significantly manage your experience with the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. To better manage its physical symptoms, try incorporating the following healthy habits into your daily life.

  • Avoid certain foods or drinks that may worsen or trigger anxiety. For example, caffeine and sugar can lead to anxiety attacks in some people.
  • Indulge in stress-reducing techniques and relaxation exercises, such as meditation and yoga, to control your body sensations and practice calmness.
  • Exercise daily to manage stress levels, release tension from the body, and improve mood.

Focus Your Awareness Elsewhere

Try adjusting your focus to something more pleasant when you feel like your physical symptoms are getting out of control or overwhelming you. Think about anything likely to change your direction, improve your food, and turn your full attention towards it.

For example, you may consider:

  • Calling up a loved one or a trusted friend to relieve the rising tension
  • Watch a movie that you enjoy
  • Practice mindfulness meditation in a peaceful corner of your house
  • Listen to your favourite songs
  • Go outside and perform some stretches

Regardless of the activity you choose to focus on; your aim should be to channel all your extra energy into an activity that soothes you or calms you down.

Seek Professional Treatment

If the physical symptoms of anxiety are becoming more frequent or intense or are disturbing your daily life, consider seeking professional treatment. A primary healthcare physician can help you connect with a relevant mental health professional to cope well with your anxiety symptoms.

The treatment usually begins with detailed assessments to get the proper diagnosis, followed by several counselling and therapy sessions. Medication may or may not be prescribed depending on each case.

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