The Physical Side of Anxiety
By Brad Gillman
May 5, 2017
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
The brain is a powerful organ. So much that the anxiety, the depression, and the fear can turn mental fears into actual physical pains.
“Most people actually experience anxiety as a physical problem,” said Jason Conover, social worker for Intermountain Healthcare’s Utah Valley Hospital. “It often doesn’t get recognized because the physical symptoms are so apparent and quite troubling that they might think they are experiencing something else – for instance, a heart attack.”
Anxiety builds tension throughout the body. Conover said in the brain can react to thoughts of fear and turn to the muscles to brace for a moment that is not happening. Much like if you were about to get in an accident or protecting your body to get punched. The action never happens but chemically you just experienced it just from a random fear thought that crept in.
Treating anxiety is important for better mental health and physical health as well. Inflammation builds up from the stress, and inflammation is a culprit in numerous chronic conditions – such as heart and gastrointestinal conditions.
Here are several ways that anxiety manifests in physical problems.
Breathing – Due to the tension, your breathing can change, Conover said. Breathing can become shorter, shallower, or even holding your breath too long. The lungs do not fully exhale due to the tension. Relaxation and breathing techniques can help.
“So if we practice letting go of all that air until our lungs are empty – then we can slow our breathing,” Conover said.
Tight Muscles – Anxiety will run tension through the body and impact different muscles. People feel the tightness in other areas. Some will feel it in their neck, jaw, chest, or the stomach. There is no specific area – wherever the brain sends the nerve signals.
If muscle tightness continues in an area for a long time, then it turns the muscle tightness into actual pain.
Rapid Heart Beat – Heart rate’s changes can occur from different sources. The shortness of breath will cause the heart to pump more oxygen into the blood to compensate.
Another way the heart rate is affected is anxiety will drive adrenaline. Typically released in moments of intense actions like sky diving or mountain climbing. But these moments can happen from impending thoughts in anxiety that are mediocre. Such as a fear of meeting someone or standing up in front of a group. The adrenaline cue leaves people feeling shaky or a general off-feeling.
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Sweating, Cold Extremities, and Light-Headed – Blood flow contributes to these symptoms. In moments of panic, the body goes into emergency mode.
“The body in emergencies will pull blood to main organs – the heart and the large muscles,” Conover said.
Sweating will be common for anxiety where extra perspiration happens during those moments. Cold hands, feet, fingers and toes happen because blood is being pulled away to protect those major organs. Also, people with anxiety will feel periods of dizziness, light-headed.
Stomach Issues – “One of the all-time classic symptoms is the stomach,” Conover said. As there are numerous gastrointestinal problems that can come with anxiety. Diarrhea, constipation and acid reflex are a few examples.
Tension in the muscles causes complications as well as the blood flow wreaking havoc. Digestion suffers as the stomach does not fully empty.
Anxiety should be treated the same as any chronic health illnesses. Speak to your family doctor about your emotions and feelings. Providers can give assistance and treatment plans for you to help manage anxiety and the physical manifestations that come along with it.
There are also relaxation activities that can help give relief: meditation, yoga, and visualization techniques. Just as the body experiences chemical reactions to negative thoughts, the brain also has the same biological change on happy thoughts. Picture yourself in your favorite place of the world or in your happiest moment.
Visit Intermountain’s website for more information on anxiety disorders, symptoms and care.