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11 physical symptoms of anxiety

When we feel anxious and our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated, this can affect our body in a number of different ways. Within this blog, we will outline the physical symptoms of anxiety that you may experience when you feel nervous, worried or afraid.

Our “fight or flight” response and its link to anxiety

Our “fight or flight” response is our instinctive survival response to real or perceived threats.

When we see something that causes us to feel fear, like a car veering towards us, our “fight or flight” response activates in order to prepare us to react and importantly, survive. The response is also triggered by perceived threats or possible dangers. For example, hearing a noise at night can trigger the response, as we believe there may be an intruder inside our home.

Our “fight or flight” response can also be activated by real or perceived threats that aren’t life-threatening. For example, fearing that we will fail an exam or miss a deadline.

For people who struggle with anxiety or who have an anxiety disorder, they often find that their body is overly sensitive to stressors. Their “fight or flight” response may trigger too frequently and too easily, leaving them feeling a level of anxiety that is entirely overwhelming.    

The physical effects of anxiety on the body

When we experience anxiety, and our “fight or flight” response is triggered, some of the common symptoms we experience include the following:

  • Increased heart rate, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or rapid breathing

When our “fight or flight” response is activated, blood pumps to our heart and lungs. Our bodies do this to get more oxygen to our muscles so that we can react and respond quickly to possible stressors. This causes our heart to beat faster and our breathing to quicken.

  • Muscle tension

Our muscles contract when our “fight or flight” response is activated. They do so in order to make our bodies more resilient in potentially stressful situations, where we would need to protect ourselves.

  • Chest pain

When our muscles tense up, the contraction of the muscles in our chest can lead to chest pain. The changes to our breathing pattern can also cause the muscles around our chest to become tired, and the decreasing carbon dioxide levels in the blood can cause chest pain too.  

  • Headaches

As our muscles tense when we become anxious, this can lead to headaches. Headaches can also be caused by a lack of sleep, something that people tend to experience with anxiety.

  • Trembling or shaking

When our muscles become tense and ready to react, this can lead to trembling, shaking or twitching. With so much change happening inside our bodies when our “fight or flight” response is activated, this can cause trembling too.

  • Sweating

When we are anxious, adrenaline is released, which activates our sweat glands. Also, as anxiety causes our heart rate and body temperature to increase, people often find that they sweat more as their body attempts to cool down.

  • Numbness, tingling, dizziness and light-headedness

A physical symptom of anxiety that people can experience is hyperventilation. This causes the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood to decrease, which can lead to numbness, dizziness and tingling. Hyperventilation can also cause a dry mouth.

  • Feeling overheated or having chills

Hyperventilation narrows our blood vessels and causes our body to heat up. As blood is directed to parts of the body essential for responding quickly, this can leave us experiencing chills and cause our extremities to get cold.

  • Finding it difficult to concentrate

When we are anxious, blood moves away from the brain and towards the areas of the body that would be the most useful in life-threatening situations like the heart and lungs. This can make it more difficult for us to think and concentrate in these moments.

  • Gastrointestinal problems

As our body focuses on getting ready to react when our “fight or flight” response is activated, we stop digesting food, as it’s not necessary in that moment. This can cause us to have butterflies, feel nauseous or actually be sick.

  • Feeling weak or tired

Our “fight or flight” response causes our bodies to flood with energy. It also causes our bodies to undergo many changes to protect us from possible risks or dangers. When this time ends and the adrenaline is depleted, it can leave us feeling drained and extremely tired.

It’s important to note that the symptoms of anxiety can vary from person to person. The symptoms a person experiences can depend on a number of factors, including the type and severity of their anxiety.

Alongside the physical symptoms, anxiety can also have a psychological and behavioural impact. Our page on the symptoms of anxiety covers all these symptoms in detail.

Support and treatment for anxiety

If you are worried about your anxiety, and feel like it is becoming overwhelming, it is recommended that you reach out for support. As a first step, you may want to contact your GP or a mental health professional, like those who work at Priory Group.

They will talk to you about your symptoms and the impact that anxiety is having on your life so that they can recommend the most effective anxiety treatment, which could include outpatient sessions, delivered either face-to-face or online; a day programme or residential treatment.

If you would like to find out more about the anxiety treatment options that are available at our hospitals and wellbeing centres, you can make an online enquiry or get in touch with our contact centre using the phone number below.

Blog reviewed by Dr Donna Grant (BSc, MBBS, MRCPsych) Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford

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