The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety brings about psychological and physical symptoms—both of which can be overwhelming. Anticipating future threats, the body gears up for a fight-or-flight moment: The brain activates the heart, lungs, and muscles so you'll be ready to engage or flee. With that, the heart beats faster, you begin to sweat, and your muscles tense, among other involuntary responses. 

Anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent and intense physical symptoms. Considering these reactions is especially important when diagnosing anxiety disorders. In fact, to meet the formal criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), for example, anxiety must be associated with multiple physical symptoms. In children, the presence of even one of these symptoms is sufficient for a diagnosis to be made.

There are several types of anxiety disorders. A look at the physical symptoms that may be experienced with GAD can give you a sense of what is possible.

Muscle Tension

Woman rubbing her neck

 Tom Merton / OJO Images / Getty Images

The muscle tension associated with normal anxiety might involve a brief tensing of the back and neck that relaxes when a threat passes. The muscle tension described by people with GAD, on the other hand, may include unrelenting aches and pains in overly active shoulder, back, neck, and jaw muscles. The tension might also include restless fidgeting of tense legs or grinding of the teeth.

These manifestations of muscle tension don't subside in the absence of a threat; rather, they persist until specific relaxation or mindfulness skills are employed, or medications that promote relaxation are taken.

Digestive Problems

The gut also holds and expresses anxiety. This can take the form of non-specific unsettling of the stomach, outright nausea, constipation, or diarrhea. Digestive problems can have a particularly negative impact on day-to-day functioning.

Beyond being uncomfortable and disruptive in their own right, these symptoms may perpetuate worries about the presence of a medical illness.

Headache and Dizziness

The psychological distress associated with GAD involves chronic worry for most of a person's waking hours. Thoughts may race down a spiral of anticipation and fear about one topic or may bounce incessantly from one issue or scenario to the next. This psychological experience can result, literally, in an aching head and dizziness.

Edginess

The edginess associated with GAD can manifest behaviorally as irritability or physically as trembling and shaking. The fidgeting or restlessness may be more obvious to observers than to the person experiencing it in some cases. 

Fatigue

Chronic worry, simply put, is exhausting, so it's common for people with GAD to be fatigued. But, sometimes, the worry or other physical symptoms of anxiety make it difficult either to fall or stay asleep. In the short-term, this can take a toll on other aspects of physical and psychological well-being.

For people experiencing even mild sleep disruptions, anxiety treatment is likely to involve changes to the bedtime routine.

Shortness of Breath

Along with increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, sweating, and/or dizziness, shortness of breath can occur. Shortness of breath as an anxiety symptom is more likely to occur as part of a panic attack, not in uncomplicated GAD.

A Word From Verywell

Physical symptoms are only considered a manifestation of anxiety if they're not better explained by the presence of a medical condition. Thus, careful evaluation by both a medical professional and a mental health provider is the most assured way to distinguish their cause. 

Anxiety disorders are quite common, but often go undiagnosed and untreated. Because women tend to experience symptoms more often than men, experts now recommend that all women and girls aged 13 and older be screened for anxiety during routine preventative exams. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms since anxiety can worsen over time. Early intervention can improve your daily functioning and mental well-being.

The physical complaints that are symptomatic of an anxiety problem are no less uncomfortable than those ascribed to a medical condition. Fortunately, as you undergo treatment for anxiety, the symptoms and your tools to cope with them will improve.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders. Updated July 2018.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Anxiety Disorders. Updated December 15, 2017.

  3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

  4. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580