Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
We all know the common symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness, worry, fear, and restlessness. However, there are many symptoms that, at first glance, may seem physical in nature, but are actually anxiety-based. Of course, all medical symptoms should be formally assessed by a medical professional to rule out underlying medical causes. However, if you find yourself in a situation where medical doctors and medical tests aren't able to explain your symptoms, anxiety may be the culprit.
Table of Contents
Physical Symptoms Associated with Anxiety
- Stomach pain/gastrointestinal problems
- Rapid breathing/shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations/increased heart rate
- Excess sweating
- Muscle tension/muscle pain
- Chest pain
Why Is My Body Physically Reacting to an Emotion?
Anxiety is our body's response to stress. It's how our body alerts us to and prepares us for danger. For example, when we experience a threat to our well-being such as a perceived attack, our body naturally prepares us to either fight the threat or flee from it (commonly known as the fight-or-flight response). When this occurs, our sympathetic nervous system instinctively increases our production of adrenaline and cortisol, causing our breathing rate to increase so that we have more oxygen in our lungs and more blood rushing to our muscles. This, in turn, gives us more strength and speed to prepare us to either fight or escape the danger.
Evolutionarily, this fight-or-flight response was highly adaptive because environmental threats were relatively commonplace when humans were first evolving. In a modern, industrialized world, it's not needed as often, yet can still be triggered by a wide array of situational variables that are not life-threatening per se, but still cause anxiety. In other words, in a world filled with stress and anxiety, the physical reactions that used to be protective in nature can (and often do) become paradoxically detrimental to our health and well-being (i.e., increased adrenaline and cortisol can lead to all ten of the physical symptoms described above).
The good news is that if your physical symptoms are caused by anxiety, there are find many highly effective and relatively simple anxiety reduction measures that you can incorporate into your routine to provide some relief.
Self-Care For Anxiety
- Relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation are all designed to help your body relax, which counters the fight-or-flight response.
- Exercise of all kinds can help reduce anxiety (and has the added benefit of improving your physical health). Some people find stress relief in more active forms of exercise, such as tennis, cycling, jogging, and even sometimes outside-the-box stress relievers (see Outside the Box Stress Relievers). Others prefer the relaxing effects of yoga, stretching, or balance exercises. Whatever works for you is what you should do.
- Nature-based stress remedies, such as the simple acts of listening to birdsongs or visiting green (nature) and blue (water) spaces, have been found to be highly effective and cost-free forms of self-care that reduce stress and anxiety (see The Therapeutic Benefits of Nurturing Yourself With Nature).
- Avoid excessive use of alcohol and caffeine: Both of these can worsen anxiety as well as negatively impact sleep.
- Establish and maintain reliable routines, such as a regular exercise routine, consistent sleep-wake times, eating meals on a regular schedule, maintaining regular contact with non-stress-inducing family and friends, and setting aside time for yourself (see 6 Reasons You Should Spend More Time Alone), are all tried-and-true ways to reduce anxiety.
Professional Care for Anxiety
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to the treatment of all forms of anxiety. Its focus is to re-train the brain by changing negative thought and behavior patterns that increase anxiety and learning new patterns of thinking and behaving that will enhance positive emotions and overall well-being.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a short-term therapeutic approach that involves weekly group classes and daily mindfulness exercises that are practiced at home.
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a therapeutic method that combines components of CBT and MBSR. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mindfulness-based therapies have been found to be quite effective in reducing stress and anxiety. The APA reports that scientists have discovered that mindfulness influences two separate pathways in the brain, changing its structures and activity in regions associated with attention and emotional control. Researchers have found "strong evidence that people who received MBCT were less likely to react with negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional reactions in times of stress" and that "people who participated in MBCT or MBSR were better able to focus on the present and less likely to worry and to think about a negative thought or experience over and over" (APA)
- Medication Management is sometimes needed when anxiety symptoms cannot be effectively or reliably managed through self-care or therapeutic forms of anxiety management. Today, a variety of healthcare professionals can prescribe anxiety medication and help you manage it, including physicians, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and, in some states, specially trained and licensed psychologists.
As you can see, there are many options if anxiety management has become a problem in your life, as it has for many people in the aftermath of Covid-19 and the long-term impact it has had world-wide. If you feel you need additional support beyond what this article offers, the following resources may be helpful:
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.