With around 8.2 million cases in the UK, anxiety is more common than those experiencing it might think. It’s a feeling that all of us will likely experience at some point in our lives. According to Fatmata Kamara, Specialist Nurse Adviser, for Bupa UK, it’s “completely normal to feel mild anxiety, especially if you’re experiencing something stressful, like a job interview, a break up or a house move. In fact, stress can actually help you perform better in stressful situations, as it can help you stay alert,” she explains.
However, if anxiety is severe or lasts for a long time it can cause both physical and mental health problems. What those experiencing it might not know, is that the often-debilitating feelings that are associated with anxiety can manifest and become more than just thoughts in the mind. In fact, the NHS lists 13 physical symptoms of anxiety which among them include headaches, breathlessness and insomnia.
Here we delve into those 13 physical symptoms of anxiety, with expert-approved solutions on what to do about them and how to get support.
What is anxiety?
“Anxiety is a feeling of general unease or worry that can occur for several reasons, for example, if you’re fearing anything relating to the future, failure, embarrassment, illness or loss,” explains Fatmata.
“When we’re anxious, our body triggers a similar response to when we’re stressed, producing the hormone adrenaline to help us cope with the situation,” she explains. “This activates the ‘fight or flight’ response, which has helped our ancestors to protect themselves from danger – either by facing a threat or by running from it.”
Fatmata explains that as we’ve adapted to modern life, adrenaline still tries to help us when we’re feeling anxious, even if we’re not in immediate physical danger. “Adrenaline can make us feel uncomfortable, as when it’s released into our bloodstream it can change the way our body functions.”
Zoë Aston, Headspace’s Mental Health Expert says everyone feels their own version of anxiety at some point in their lives – and it's important to look at how it has helped you survive, but also acknowledge when it has made things more difficult.
“It becomes an issue when your sense of anxiety is stopping you from carrying out your daily life. If this goes on for more than six weeks, seek guidance from your GP or speak to a mental health professional like a therapist or a counsellor."
What are the physical symptoms of anxiety?
There are several physical symptoms of anxiety, however Zoë does add that by the time anxiety is physical “‘it is most likely chronic, and it is always advisable to seek further help”. The most common physical symptoms include:
Loss of appetite and nausea
Heavy legs/muscle tension
This can be caused by the flight, fight, freeze system being activated, explains Zoë. “Anxiety is there to inform you that there is a threat present, the breathlessness, in part is your body getting into a sympathetic state where it can react and ensure survival.”
Along with the breathlessness, Fatmata adds that there’ll be an increase in heart rate too. “As adrenaline is sending more blood to your muscles, helping us to take in more oxygen, your heart has to work harder, making it beat faster,” she explains.
Shaking or trembling
Shaking and trembling occurs when your body is trying to release the adrenaline and cortisol hormones that have built up, Zoë explains.
“So rather than trying to stop the shakes or the trembles, find somewhere private where you can shake it all out and allow those hormones to release in the way they are meant to be released,” Zoë suggests.
Fatmata adds that responsible exercise can be beneficial to release some of the pent-up energy.
Loss of appetite and nausea
Perhaps you’ve noticed that your appetite just isn’t what it used to be - this is because anxiety tells us we are under threat.
“When our mind perceives danger, it interprets the situation as one where we may need to fight, flight or freeze in order to survive. To preserve energy all non-essential systems are halted - including your digestion,” Zoë says.
In fact, you might even feel a bit sick. If you find that you’re so anxious that you can’t eat, try consuming liquid calories instead to keep your energy up and speak with a professional for support.
“When anxiety gets into your striated muscles - the muscles you do not have conscious control over - you might start to experience symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome, a change in your menstrual cycles and heart palpitations, to name a few,” explains Zoë.
Diarrhoea - a common IBS symptom - can become a problem during anxious times, which Fatmata says is because your heart is prioritising pumping blood to the muscles that allow us to run away or attack. Because of this, the muscles around your inner sphincter relax, meaning you may feel an urgent urge to use the toilet.
“If you’re feeling particularly anxious, try to avoid any food or drink that may cause you to use the toilet more often, like caffeine, alcohol or anything high-fibre,” says Zoë.
She recommends getting any physical issues checked out by a medical professional and if there is nothing medically concerning, looking into specific emotional support like talking therapy or holistic body therapies, can offer a gentle solution.
It's also important to note, that while IBS can be a symptom of anxiety, it may also cause anxiety in some women. A study by gut health supplement brand Symprove found that 77% of 2,000 women surveyed in the UK who were suffering with IBS said it impacted their mental health.
Dr Sara Kayat, GP and Symprove expert explains: "The gut and the brain have a very intimate relationship and are in constant communication with one another. This is called the ‘gut-brain axis’. An unhappy gut will send signals to the brain letting it know, and an unhappy brain will send signals to the gut letting it know. It’s a two-way street.”
When you’re anxious or stressed, your body is on high alert, which stops you from relaxing and being able to fall asleep.
It’s a good idea to wind down before bed, avoiding screens and technology and opting for a calm activity such as reading or deep breathing. Zoë recommends doing any self-soothing activities such as mindfulness, away from the bed, and then putting yourself to bed as you start to drift off.
Sweating occurs as the body tries to cool down when it’s fleeing from danger. However, when you’re anxious, the same concoction of hormones is released, creating the same effect.
Fatmata explains that if you know that you’re going to have an anxious day try to wear loose-fitting cotton clothes and avoid eating or drinking anything that could make you sweat more such as alcohol or spicy food.
Heavy legs and muscle tension
When we’re frightened, anxious or stressed, our body experiences increased tension. This, along with an increase in blood flow, can cause a feeling of heavy legs.
Gentle exercise or stretching can help to give the blood flow and muscles a chance to do what they need to do - which is to get you moving! Fatmata also recommends gently massaging your muscles to release tension, followed by a hot shower, stretching or yoga.
According to Zoë, headaches when you’re anxious is due to the hormonal response in our mind’s fight or flight system. Fatmata adds that when blood pumps around your body to fuel your muscles, it can also cause aches and pains, such as headaches.
“Next time you sense your headache is related to an anxious reaction, try talking to someone about what’s bothering and worrying you and notice if the headache reduces or even goes away entirely,” Fatmata suggests.
Numbness and tingling
Feelings of numbness can occur because your heart is prioritising the areas of your body to pump blood to, explains Fatmata. The fight or flight response causes blood vessels to get smaller which can cause an increase in heart rate and less blood being pumped to different areas of the body, including the hands and feet which are two areas furthest away from the heart.
When we’re anxious or nervous, we tend to hold our breath or breathe much faster and shallower. This helps to move oxygen towards our major muscle groups to get them ready for action, if we were to be in danger. “However, this can make you feel both dizzy and lightheaded,” says Zoë.
Breathwork can help, as can a body scan meditation focusing on each limb as you breathe deeply and encourage your mind and body to relax.
Hyper-vigilance and hearing sensations
“This usually plays out as you are hearing, seeing and generally taking in more information than usual,” explains Zoë. “For example, you might hear something someone said across a room.” Again, this is down to you being in the fight-or-flight, adrenaline-fuelled state.
Zoë recommends finding a way to self-soothe to combat this. “I love the 54321 exercise: name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.” This helps to bring your awareness back to yourself and give your body and mind the message that you're safe so that the hyper vigilant response can go offline again.
Zoë explains that anxiety-related chest pains are often due to the hormonal response caused by the fight or flight response. Chest pains can feel sharp or shooting, a dull ache or even like spasms. The stress response can present itself as tension, which may take place in the chest.
Deep breathing and relaxation apps can help the pain. However if the chest pain is regular, visit your GP to rule out any other conditions. And, if you’re ever worried about chest pains seek immediate medical attention. See the NHS website for guidance.
Experiencing a dry mouth is a common physical symptom of anxiety. Fatmata explains that the dry sensation that can occur is because your body prioritises sending fluids to your major muscles instead, as they need the power to work.
To help, she recommends drinking water, and eating or chewing something that helps to generate more saliva in your mouth, such as chewing gum, carrots, celery or sugar-free lollies.
Where to get support for anxiety
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, it’s important to seek out help from someone you trust. Speak with your GP who will be able to refer you to talking therapies or counselling and offer support and guidance.
You can also use a listening service such as Samaritans, who’s helpline is open 24/7 on 116 123 to provide support and advice.
Anxiety UK also offer support services on the phone Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.30pm. Try 03444 775 774. They also offer a text support service on 07537 416905.
For more information on anxiety, see the NHS website.
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