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When most people think of anxiety, they often think of feeling worried or fearful. But it’s actually more common for people to learn they have an anxiety disorder when they seek medical attention for their physical symptoms. A racing heart, sweating, and chills are just a few of the physical symptoms that might make you rush to your healthcare provider to see what’s going on.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses. It causes intense feelings of fear or worry about a current situation or future event.
The nervous system causes the symptoms of anxiety in response to a perceived threat or stress. You’ve probably heard this response called the body’s fight or flight response because it prepares you to either run from danger or fight to defend yourself (Chand, 2021).
The change in the nervous system affects every part of your body, from increasing your heart rate to releasing stored energy for fuel.
This response is ideally built for causes of stress that are likely to go away within a few minutes to a couple of hours. For instance, if a lion were chasing you, you’d get away from the danger (or not) within a short period. People are exposed to more chronic stressors in modern times—with work emails that come right to your phone, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle. Unfortunately, chronic anxiety affects many people, having a significant impact on their physical and mental health, and it often goes undiagnosed.
Anxiety treatments: therapies, medication, self-care
Types of anxiety
There are many types of anxiety disorders, including (Chand, 2021):
Separation anxiety disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is fear or anxiety caused by being separated from someone you’re attached to. The anxiety can also be caused by the worry or fear of future separation. This type of anxiety disorder is more common in children, but the symptoms can continue into adulthood.
Selective mutism is a consistent failure to talk during one or more situations even though the person can speak in other circumstances.
A specific phobia is an intense fear or anxiety about an object or situation. Often, people with particular phobias realize that their fear isn’t rational and poses little to no danger. Still, their response may be hard to control. Examples of specific phobias include blood, animals, spiders, water, etc.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is the fear of other people’s negative scrutiny. People with social anxiety fear being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or offending other people. Social situations trigger fear, and it may be present in the days or weeks leading up to a social event.
Social anxiety disorder: signs, causes, how to overcome
This condition is characterized by the regular occurrence of panic attacks and the fear of having future panic attacks. People with panic disorder often start to avoid circumstances that may trigger a panic attack. They often feel out of control.
Agoraphobia is the fear of places that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment. As a result, people often avoid potential triggers for their symptoms, withdrawing from social interactions. Many people with agoraphobia may avoid leaving their houses at all.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety is a persistent fear and excessive worry about everyday activities. This condition can affect all areas of your life, including school, work, home, and nearly every situation.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by a persistent urge or worry that compels someone to repeat a particular behavior or thought pattern.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a worry, fear, and anxiety that develops after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic life event.
Physical symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety disorders can cause physical and emotional symptoms, as well as behavior changes. Most people understand that worry, fear, and avoiding situations are symptoms of anxiety. Still, people are less likely to seek help from those symptoms alone.
The physical symptoms of anxiety can sometimes be more alarming because they can mimic the symptoms of other medical conditions, like a heart attack. If you’re experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety, seek medical attention to assess whether there may be a medical cause for your symptoms. Many of those medical causes can be severe.
Let’s look at some of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety.
1. Increased heart rate and heart palpitations
Changes in your heart rate are one of the most common physical signs of anxiety. When your fight or flight response starts, it increases your heart rate to prepare you for action. You may be able to hear and feel your heart pounding in your chest. An irregular heartbeat and a fast heart rate are common symptoms (Chand, 2021).
2. Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
Your nervous system also increases your breathing. Anxiety and panic attack symptoms include quick, shallow breathing. Some people begin to hyperventilate with rapid breaths and feel like they are having trouble breathing.
3. Chest pain or pressure
Pressure or pain in the chest can be a physical sensation of anxiety. If you feel pain or pressure in your chest, talk with your healthcare provider or seek medical attention. This is one of the symptoms that could be a sign of other severe medical conditions.
4. Choking sensation
The feeling of pressure can affect the throat and leave some people feeling like they are choking.
5. Tingling or numbness in arms or legs
The nerves sometimes become overactive in response to anxiety. This could cause numbness or a tingling sensation in your arms and legs.
In addition to causing tingling, the nerve sensation could affect how your muscles feel. You may have heard of how people can become “weak in the knees” and need to sit down when receiving bad news. Weakness in the arms and legs can be a symptom of anxiety.
7. Feeling unsteady, lightheaded, or fainting
Lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting is another common symptom of anxiety. A high heart rate and hyperventilating could make fainting more likely.
8. Tense, rigid muscles
Many people tense or brace their muscles in response to stress. Sometimes people refer to this as “carrying” their stress in their neck and shoulders because these are common muscles to tense up.
9. Dry mouth
Some people may notice their mouth becoming dry when experiencing other anxiety symptoms.
10. Sweating, chills, or hot flashes
Feeling a change in temperature is common with anxiety. Some people feel cold or develop chills, while others feel hot and flushed while anxious. Sweating may occur along with either chills or a hot flash.
11. Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Anxiety both affects sleep and is affected by sleep. Insomnia and difficulties sleeping are common symptoms of anxiety. In addition, poor sleep quality can worsen anxiety symptoms (Horenstein, 2019).
Insomnia: what is it, symptoms, causes, treatments
How to ease anxiety symptoms
Medical treatments and lifestyle changes can help with anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety disorders are often treated with medications, therapy, or a combination.
Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may help to ease anxiety. Examples of medications that may be recommended include benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) (Chand, 2021).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy used to treat mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. CBT uses talk therapy to adapt negative thinking, beliefs, and actions into more positive thoughts and behaviors. These strategies help you cope with stress triggers and anxiety symptoms (Chand, 2021).
Both individual sessions and support groups are effective in helping people with anxiety disorders.
Self-help strategies and making changes to your daily life may help reduce your anxiety symptoms. Try these tips to improve your symptoms and increase your overall wellness:
- Engage in regular physical activity: Research shows that regular exercise, particularly high-intensity exercise like running, helps lower anxiety (Aylett, 2018). Still, any physical activity is good for you physically and mentally. Try to increase your activity level by taking the stairs, walking during your lunch break, and parking farther away from the door.
- Meditate: Mindfulness practices help to improve positive thinking and reduce anxiety (Thurston, 2018). Video or audio-guided meditations can be helpful when first learning how to meditate. Even a regular 5-minute meditation practice could help you improve your anxiety.
- Try deep breathing exercises: Your diaphragm is the muscle at the bottom of your rib cage that helps control your breathing. Deep breathing exercises that focus on breathing from your diaphragm can help manage anxiety and increase attention (Ma, 2017).
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Since anxiety affects sleep quality and worsens with poor sleep, it’s important to focus on your sleeping habits (Horenstein, 2019). Try to go to bed at the same time every day, avoid blue light from devices at night, and sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room.
Sleep hygiene: what is it and 20 tips for better sleep
When to see a healthcare provider
If you’re experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety, your healthcare provider may need to assess you for other medical causes of your symptoms. Seek immediate medical attention if you’re experiencing:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Numbness or tingling, particularly on one side of your body
These symptoms could be a sign of other medical conditions, such as a heart attack or stroke.
If anxiety symptoms are affecting how you feel, causing distress, or leading you to avoid activities you want to accomplish, don’t hesitate to talk with a healthcare provider. There are effective treatments available, and a mental health professional can help you better cope with the stressors in your life.
There is hope to feel better, whether you choose lifestyle changes alone or also receive professional help.
- Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1), 559. doi: 10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6048763/
- Chand SP, Marwaha R. (2021). Anxiety. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/
- Horenstein, A., Morrison, A. S., Goldin, P., Ten Brink, M., Gross, J. J., & Heimberg, R. G. (2019). Sleep quality and treatment of social anxiety disorder. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 32(4), 387–398. doi: 10.1080/10615806.2019.1617854. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6698895/
- Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., et al. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
- Thurston, M. D., Goldin, P., Heimberg, R., & Gross, J. J. (2017). Self-views in social anxiety disorder: The impact of CBT versus MBSR. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 47, 83–90. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.01.001. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5376221/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.