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Last updated: Oct 12, 2021
4 min read

What does anxiety feel like?

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at some point. It’s important to recognize what anxiety feels like for you so that you can work on strategies for managing it. Your healthcare provider can rule out any medical conditions causing your symptoms. If your anxiety isn’t caused by a medical condition, there are a number of scientifically backed treatments that can help. Relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and anti-anxiety medications have all proven effective at reducing anxiety.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

We all feel anxious sometimes, especially when facing stressful life events like moving, a job interview, public speaking, or financial difficulties.

Anxiety is your body’s response to stress and can show up as fear or nervousness about the future. Along with these anxious thoughts, you can also experience anxiety as a variety of sensations in your body. 

What does anxiety feel like? It’s different for everyone, and sometimes these feelings can build up and interfere with your daily life. Fortunately, there are ways to manage this anxiety before it interferes with your wellbeing.

Here’s a look at what anxiety feels like and how you can handle your anxiety before it builds up.

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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is related to the feeling of fear, an automatic state of alarm characterized by a fight or flight response. The brain creates this response when it judges that you are in danger. This danger can be real or only perceived (Chand, 2020).

With anxiety, your body produces complex feelings and sensations in anticipation of events that might be threatening. This is a good response when you encounter actual danger in real life. However, for reasons that researchers aren’t sure of, sometimes the brain overestimates the amount of threat in everyday situations. This excessive response can lead to an anxiety disorder (Chand, 2020).

The National Health Interview Survey conducted in 2019 found that over 15% of adults in the United States reported experiencing anxiety in the last two weeks (Terlizzi, 2019). This makes anxiety disorders one of the most common psychiatric conditions. And the prevalence might be even higher, since many people with only mild symptoms don’t seek help (Chand, 2020).

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety feels different for each person. Researchers have found that there are many common symptoms, though. When you’re anxious, you might experience various physical, cognitive, or emotional feelings (Chand, 2020).

Physical feelings of anxiety

The physical symptoms often associated with anxiety include (Chand, 2020):

  • Racing heart/ palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Choking sensation
  • Dizzy or lightheaded
  • Hot or sweaty
  • Nausea, upset stomach, or diarrhea
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle tension or stiffness

Cognitive feelings of anxiety

The cognitive sensations often associated with anxiety include feeling (Chand, 2020):

  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of being physically hurt
  • A fear of “going crazy”
  • Judged by others
  • Like you aren’t really present
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confused
  • Like your surroundings aren’t real

Emotional feelings of anxiety

The emotional sensations often associated with anxiety include feeling (Chand, 2020):

  • Nervous
  • Tense
  • Wound up
  • Overly alert for threats
  • Tearful
  • Impatient
  • Frightened
  • Jumpy/ jittery

What conditions are associated with feeling anxiety?

Not everyone who experiences anxiety will have a diagnosable mental health disorder. However, anxiety is a common feature in many psychiatric conditions such as (Chand, 2020):

Several different medical conditions can also be associated with anxious feelings. Some examples of these are (Chand, 2020):

  • Thyroid disease
  • Heart disease
  • Asthma and other lung illnesses
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Neurological diseases

If your anxiety is a symptom of a medical condition, these symptoms will often improve when your healthcare provider treats the underlying illness. 

How to handle anxiety

Since they’re one of the most common mental health conditions, anxiety disorders have been studied extensively by medical researchers. This means that there are several scientifically-backed treatment options available.

It’s essential to get a handle on your feelings of anxiety because high amounts of stress can harm your physical and mental health over time. Chronic stress and anxiety in childhood and adulthood can lead to increased blood pressure. It also affects the way the brain develops (Norelli, 2021).

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation strategies are therapeutic exercises designed to help decrease tension and anxiety. These techniques have been used as a part of psychotherapy for many years; now, they’re sometimes used as stand-alone treatments for stress, anxiety, depression, and pain (Norelli, 2021).

Relaxation techniques can assist with reducing the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety. There are many varieties of strategies that you can use. Some of the most common are (Norelli, 2021):

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps participants identify the relationships between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Your therapist can assist you with uncovering the automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions (inaccurate ways of thinking), and underlying beliefs that are causing you stress. You can then work together to replace the thoughts and ideas that aren’t serving you with more helpful ones (Chand, 2021).

Medications

Many people struggling with feelings of anxiety may benefit from trying medication to manage their symptoms. The first-line treatment for anxiety disorders is usually a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs.  These increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin available in the brain, which can improve your mood and anxiety levels (Bandelow, 2017).

Other types of medication that have been used successfully to help manage the symptoms of anxiety include (Bandelow, 2017):

Studies looking at the recurrence of anxiety symptoms have found that you should continue on medications for at least 12 months after your symptoms have stopped. This reduces the likelihood that your anxiety will come back later (Bandelow, 2017).

When to see a healthcare provider

It’s not unusual to occasionally experience episodes of mild anxiety. Most times, you can overcome these with relaxation or grounding techniques. However, if you find your anxiety becoming severe or persistent, it might be time to seek out some extra help with therapy and medication. 

Contact your healthcare provider if your anxiety starts interfering with living your everyday life (work, school, relationships, daily activities). They can help you rule out any physical problems causing your symptoms and provide referrals to local mental health providers.

References

  1. Bandelow, B., Michaelis, S., & Wedekind, D. (2017). Treatment of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 19(2), 93–107. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.2/bbandelow. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28867934/
  2. Chand, S. P. & Marwaha, R. (2020). Anxiety. [Updated Nov 29, 2020]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Aug. 27, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/
  3. Norelli, S. K., Long, A., Krepps, J. M. (2021). Relaxation techniques. [Updated Jul 26, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Aug. 27, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513238/
  4. Terlizzi, E. P. & Villarroel, M. A. (2020). Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder among adults: United States, 2019. NCHS Data Brief, no 378. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db378.htm