Anxiety Therapy Fort Lauderdale, FL

10 Surprising Ways Anxiety Symptoms Show up in the Body

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By Dr. Gabriela Sadurní Rodríguez

“I felt like I was dying!” my patient exclaimed as he was sitting across from me during our therapy session.

He had just visited the Emergency Room for the 15th time due to experiencing sharp chest pain without medical causes. I could feel his exasperation filling the room.

“They tell me it’s in my head,” he softly mumbled as he looked down to the floor. 

What my patient described above is a very common physical manifestation of anxiety. I’ll write here exactly what I explained to him that day: anxiety is not just in your head, there are very real manifestations of anxiety in the body. Below are 10 common, yet maybe surprising, physical symptoms of how anxiety shows up in the body.

How Anxiety Symptoms Show Up in the Body:

  1. Chest pain
  2. Muscle tension
    • This is a common physical symptom of anxiety; you may find yourself clenching your jaw (especially at night while sleeping) or feeling stiffness in your body.
    • Holding tension in parts of your body for long periods of time can also lead to pain (people frequently report having pain in the back, neck, shoulders, chest, etc.).
  3. Skin problems
  4. Stomach issues
    • Anxiety can cause stomach ailments or increase issues like nausea, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, bloating, IBS, flatulence, burping, and other gastrointestinal (GI) problems. 
    • A common example is feeling nauseous or having an intense need to visit the restroom before public speaking or giving a presentation. Other easily relatable ways in understanding this is thinking about the famous “gut feeling” or the “butterflies in your stomach.”
    • This has to do with the enteric nervous system (also known as the “second brain”), which is in charge of regulating the gut. It is important to note that neurotransmitters travel from the brain to the gut and vice versa (sending messages in both directions). 
    • Research has also shown that high levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) destroy healthy bacteria in the gut.
  5. Changes in hair and nails
    • Anxiety can also cause thinning of the hair follicles and hair loss. There is also a condition called Telogen Effluvium in which stress pushes the hair follicles into a resting phase, causing them to eventually shed/fall off.  
    • Stress can also cause brittle, peeling nails. Moreover, behaviors we engage in when anxious may also cause further damage to nails such as nail-biting, chronic rubbing (which can cause ridges), or picking on the cuticles. 
  6. Shortness of breath 
    • When anxious, you may find yourself holding your breath, having quick shallow breaths, and just not taking deep breaths. 
    • Remember we mentioned muscle tension? Anxiety can cause tension in the muscles that help you breathe, making it harder to do so.
  7. Fatigue
    • Anxiety can also make you feel exhausted and drained all the time. This is due to excessive worrying and having constant changes in your energy levels; which can also impact your capacity to concentrate. 
    • Be mindful that a lack of sleep/sleep issues can also contribute to ongoing fatigue.
  8. Cold extremities
    • Anxiety typically shows up as a response to threat. When we perceive danger, we tend to have what is called the fear response or stress response
      • *Side note: Anxiety and fear produce similar physiological responses*
    • When the fight or flight reaction is activated (sympathetic system), the blood flows from the extremities to larger organs to protect them and ensure survival; thus you may feel like your hands and feet are cold.
  9. Changes in vision
    • When the fight and flight response is activated, people may notice themselves having sharp, tunnel vision due to dilated pupils. 
    • Anxiety can also cause blurry vision due to pressure in the eyes.
  10. Sexual dysfunction
    • Sexual performance anxiety or fear of inadequacy can cause and maintain arousal difficulties. Commonly associated issues involve erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, lack of orgasm, vaginal dryness, vaginismus (involuntary tightening), and pain.
    • It can also cause decreased libido or sexual desire.

Are you not sure if you should see a therapist for your anxiety?

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Anxiety Disorder Statistics

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Anxiety disorders “are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.” Furthermore, NIH reports that approximately 31.1% of adults in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. The ADAA adds that individuals with anxiety disorders are “3 to 5 times more likely to go to the doctor and 6 times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders.”

Biological Basis

When we are stressed or perceive danger/threat, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) sends adrenaline to trigger important physiological changes in our body and prepare us to respond to the situation by either fighting or fleeing. Common physiological changes include increased heart rate, flushed face and/or clammy hands (due to blood being redistributed in the body), muscle tension, trembling, and other mentioned body changes.  

On the other hand, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is in charge of the freeze response, which could also be activated in times of stress. The PNS’s main function is to help the body  rest, digest, and maintain homeostasis. During times of stress/anxiety, it conserves energy.

During times of danger or threat your body chooses a reaction that can best ensure your safety and survival. It is important to highlight that this reaction is involuntary.

Please see the graph below for further information.

Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

Somatic Symptoms

With anxiety, people may experience a wide array of somatic symptoms (which are physical symptoms caused by emotional distress). Some other unexplained and interesting somatic symptoms that may show up are: 

  • “Phantom ringing” (e.g. buzzing, ringing, humming, swooshing, etc.)
  • ‘Pins and needles’ or tingling sensations
  • Numb extremities
  • Physical weakness
  • Eye twitching
  • Tremors (e.g. trembling or shaking in different parts of the body)

How to manage physical anxiety symptoms:

  • Breathing– deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which helps you relax.
  • Mindfulness– focusing your attention to your inner experience in the present moment, non-judgmentally, can be helpful in managing anxiety and its physical manifestations in the body. 
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation– this is a relaxation technique in which you tense and relax different muscle groups in your body as you breathe. Download our free guided PMR exercise to try it out! 

In conclusion, our minds and bodies are connected! Our bodies can experience changes associated with anxiety, and typically, it signals that you’re becoming stressed or alert/ready to manage potential danger or threat. 

It is important to note that our bodies are not meant to be persistently overactivated (constantly perceiving danger/threat in fairly safe situations) as it may have long lasting effects on your health. Gaining awareness of how your anxiety manifests in your body may be key in learning and practicing how to manage it; and thus, in taking good care of yourself! 

If you feel like you may benefit from extra support and professional guidance, you may consider trying anxiety therapy in Fort Lauderdale at The Psychology Group.

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Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique

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