Anxiety causes many different sensations throughout the body. It manifests in different ways and feels different between affected individuals. Sometimes people are unaware of how anxiety can create uncomfortable sensations through the body, but it is possible for an anxious mental state to create physical symptoms of anxiety. It is important to not only understand physical symptoms, how they arise, and how they affect you, but also how to cope with the sensations to prevent pain and discomfort.
There are several different physical symptoms of anxiety. For example, people who suffer from social phobia or generalized anxiety may suffer from headaches, stomachaches and stress rashes as a result of a recurrent or persistent anxious state of mind. Others may experience muscle tension, hyperventilation, tremors, and racing heartbeat if they suffer from Posttraumatic stress disorder, a phobia, or panic disorder. Each physical symptom feels different between individuals and will be triggered by different stressors. Sometimes the pain and discomfort caused by the symptoms can cause a person to feel helpless or out of control. Fortunately, there are tips and tricks to learn to help you control and manage the physical symptoms caused by anxiety.
A person who suffers from severe or chronic anxiety may find that he or she also suffers from frequent headaches. Anxiety headaches are often caused by the muscle tension a person experiences when feeling stressed. Common pressure points in which a person will feel pain are the temples, around the eyes, at the top of the head or at the base of the neck. Anxiety headaches can cause a person to feel drowsy or dizzy, and can affect a person’s ability to perform daily tasks, like problem-solving or stress management.
Suffering from headaches caused by anxiety is painful and frustrating. They are often recurrent and are strongly affected by the level of daily stress a person experiences in a day. This is why it is important to have good stress management skills to control how you react to stress, which will reduce the risk of developing a headache. The following are strategies to relieve headaches caused by anxiety:
- Massaging pressure points on the face, jaw, neck and shoulders.
- Practice muscle relaxation techniques on your face, neck and shoulders.
- Practice mindfulness exercises throughout the day, like guided imagery, deep breathing and mindful observation.
- Listen to soft and soothing music.
- Remember to take breaks when at work or tending to chores.
- Rest your eyes during the day if feeling a strain around the temples.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Limit caffeine intake to 1 to 2 cups per day.
- Be sure to get enough sleep.
A common reaction to stress and anxiety is stomachaches. People often experience stomachaches when confronted with a specific trigger, but can also get a stomachache when feeling overwhelmed by different stressors. Stomachaches can manifest in different ways, like:
- ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
In prolonged and extreme conditions, the stomachaches and indigestion can cause more severe conditions like ulcers, acid reflux disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. Because of the long-term consequences of anxiety-induced stomach problems it is important to know how to manage the triggers that cause the anxious stomachaches to reduce their recurrence and intensity. Methods to reduce anxiety-induced stomachaches include:
- Maintaining a healthy diet that is high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables.
- Avoid foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium.
- Limit intake of caffeine
- Avoid acidic foods.
- Maintain meditation and mindfulness practices like deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
- Establish an emotional outlet to express concerns, worries, and apprehensions that cause anxiety (journaling, art, etc.).
- Identify your triggers and develop a safety plan for when confronted by those triggers.
It is possible for people who suffer from anxiety to develop a stress rash. While stress rashes are not as common as other physical symptoms of anxiety, they do serve as physical manifestations of a person suffering from a stressful situation. They are particularly common for people with pre-existing skin or medical issues, like psoriasis, eczema, or autoimmune diseases.
When a person is stressed his or her immune system is weakened. The weakened immune system prevents the body from being able to prevent an outbreak. Stress rashes tend to be itchy and uncomfortable, and cause a person to become self-conscious or embarrassed about the outbreak.
It can be easy to become upset or more anxious when breaking out in a stress rash, but the emotional upset and stress will worsen the condition. That is why it is important to stay calm and patient as the abrasion heals. It can take a few days or even weeks for a stress rash to heal, but there are things you can do to facilitate the healing process and prevent recurrent outbreaks, like:
- Identify the source of stress. If possible, eliminate the source or minimize its effect on you as much as possible.
- Maintain self-care and mindfulness techniques, like meditation, rational thinking, and proper stress management skills.
- Restrain from touching or scratching the rash and surrounding area. Instead, use an ice pack or cold compress to relieve pain and irritation.
- Do not wear abrasive clothing or use harsh soaps while the rash heals.
- Do not use lotions or scented products on the affected area.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Get enough rest during the day and sufficient sleep at night. Be sure to take breaks and not overwork yourself.
- Adopt a diet that keeps the immune system strong and healthy. Vitamins E, D, C and B1 strengthen the immune system and prevent infection.
Muscle tension is a major symptom of anxiety. Muscle tension occurs as a reaction to stress because as a person becomes more anxious, he or she begins to take more shallow breaths (which deprives the muscles of oxygen) and instinctually brace himself or herself for a perceived threat. Muscle tension causes a great deal of strain and pain to the body and can cause a person to feel like his or her safety and wellbeing is being compromised. This could trigger a person to act aggressively or become overwhelmed with distress.
It is important to be aware of your body in times of high stress. Focusing on relaxing the muscles when confronted with a trigger for anxiety can reduce the resulting discomfort and chances of experiencing other symptoms, like shortness of breath, headaches and tremors. The following are methods in relieving muscle tension:
- Remind yourself you are not in danger. Your instincts are generated through a primitive part of the brain, which is not able to understand the difference between anxiety and threat. If you remind yourself you are not in danger your body will relax. Try creating a mantra, or saying, to repeat to yourself when you feel tense but know it is due to anxiety that is not triggered by a life-threatening situation.
- Practice deep breathing. Deep breathing is important for relieving muscle tension because the oxygen taken in by the lungs will be delivered to the muscles, which will replenish their supply of oxygen. This will cause them to relax, which will help your mind relax.
- Practice muscle relaxation and meditative exercises. Meditation is important for muscle relaxation. Meditation brings the body and mind to a relaxed state. This relaxed state will release the strain in the muscles. Tai Chi and Yoga are particularly useful for relieving muscle tension because they calm the mind, relax the body, and stretch the muscles. The stretching of the muscles releases the tension and reduces the intensity of the reaction when your anxiety is triggered.
- Drink plenty of water. Water is important for keeping the muscles healthy. Dehydration will cause strain to the muscles. In order to prevent unnecessary strain, be sure to consistently drink water throughout the day.
- Limit your intake of caffeine. Caffeine causes jitters and muscle tension. Limiting the amount of caffeine consumed in a day will reduce the overall tension throughout the body.
Hyperventilation (Shortness of Breath)
Some people may hyperventilate when feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Hyperventilation, or shortness of breath, can be scary for those who are suffering from anxiety because it causes the person to feel dizzy, nauseous and lightheaded, and can result in fainting or a panic attack. Hyperventilation can also cause chest pain, which results in the sensation of a heart attack.
Hyperventilating is scary, so when a person begins to hyperventilate their anxiety worsens. This can often lead to a panic attack or losing consciousness. To prevent from entering a state of panic, utilize the following coping mechanisms:
- Slow down your breathing with ‘tummy breaths’: take a slow and steady inhale until your stomach fills with air, then slowly release the breath.
- If the hyperventilation is triggered by a stressful situation, remove yourself from that situation.
- Distract your mind from the anxiety and the triggering stressors by going for a walk or taking a moment to relax and meditate.
- Engage in meditation exercises that help keep focus on deep breathing and awareness of the body’s sensations.
- Create a saying or mantra to remind yourself when you feel yourself getting too overwhelmed or begin to hyperventilate. Repeat the words in your mind while using deep breathing exercises.
Tremors and Severe Shaking
Anxiety can cause tremors or uncontrollable shaking when confronted with a stressful or upsetting situation. Tremors are often situational. They occur when a person is confronted with a difficult, controversial, or uncomfortable situation. The reaction is involuntary, and is the result of the body’s fight-or-flight response being triggered by perceived danger or threat. Anxiety tremors can be painful as the body’s muscles tense up, which causes shaking in reaction to stress. It can also cause embarrassment for the affected person as others stare or express concern about the severe shaking. It can be difficult to control tremors, but there are methods to manage symptoms. Such methods include:
- Practicing deep breathing exercises when feeling anxious or beginning to shake. Deep breathing will bring extra oxygen into the lungs and muscles, which will help relieve the tension and relax the body.
- Practicing mindfulness and meditation exercises throughout the day, such as guided imagery and mindful observation. Such exercises will relax the mind and body.
- Remember that a reaction does not need to be immediate. When feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and count to 10 to give the mind a chance to process information. This will prevent a flood of thoughts and emotions.
- Exercise regularly to relieve stress and anxious energy.
- Remove yourself from stressful situations when needed.
Experiencing a racing heartbeat when feeling anxious is a scary sensation that can sometimes cause people to become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. A racing heartbeat causes several sensations in the body, like:
- Pins and needles in hands and feet
- A tingling or painful sensation in the chest
- The feeling of butterflies in the stomach
- Muscle tension
It can also cause a person to believe he or she is having a heart attack, which often leads to a panic attack. A racing heartbeat can result in several different thoughts, feelings, and reactions. They are particularly hazardous when the affected person does not understand what they are experiencing or how it is related to their anxiety. It is important to be aware that a racing heartbeat is a symptom of anxiety, it is not life threatening and it can be managed. The following are useful strategies in slowing down heart rate and relieving symptoms caused by a racing heartbeat:
- Muscle relaxation exercises, meditation and muscle tension-and-relaxation practices.
- Mindfulness exercises, like guided imagery, self-awareness, and mindful observation.
- Deep breathing exercises. The oxygen brought to the brain will create a calming effect, which will reduce the overall anxiety. This will relax the body and lower the heart rate.
- Maintain a regular schedule of cardio exercise, like running, biking, or swimming. This will keep the heart healthy and exhaust extra energy that would otherwise cause anxiety.