Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety is about more than just feeling worried or nervous—it is often accompanied by a number of unpleasant and distressing physical symptoms as well. There are a number of different types of disorders that are linked to such physical manifestation of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder, and specific phobias.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Woman rubbing her neck

 Tom Merton / OJO Images / Getty Images

Some of the primary physical symptoms of anxiety can include:

Muscle Tension

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 anxiety, 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. Instead, 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 anxiety involves persistent general worry or fears of specific situations. 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.


The edginess associated with anxiety 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. 


Chronic worry, simply put, is exhausting, so it's common for people with anxiety 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.

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How Anxiety Affects Your Body

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.

Anxiety or Something Else?

While anxiety can lead to a number of physical symptoms, there are also medical conditions that can sometimes feel like anxiety. Some medical conditions that can cause anxiety-like symptoms including heart problems, asthma, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and neurological conditions. A doctor can evaluate your symptoms and rule out any underlying medical causes

Impact of Anxiety

Anxiety can also take a toll on physical and mental health, particularly when it is prolonged. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) suggests that people who have anxiety are at an increased risk for a number of different health problems.

Research has also found that having more anxiety symptoms is connected to a higher risk of developing:

  • Asthma
  • Back problems
  • Cardiovascular problems 
  • Migraines
  • Ulcers
  • Vision problems

Anxiety can also contribute to other problems including chronic pain, digestive problems, depression, social issues, and substance use.

Treatments for Anxiety

Treatments for anxiety can vary depending on the specific condition you have as well as the nature and severity of your symptoms. In most cases, treatment for the emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms of anxiety involves medication, therapy, or a combination of the two.


Medication can be helpful for addressing the physical symptoms of anxiety. Benzodiazepines have a sedative effect and can provide fast-acting relief for the physical effects of anxiety.

However, these medications can also be habit-forming, which is why they are often prescribed for short-term relief. Other medications may also be prescribed including antidepressants and beta-blockers.


Different types of talk therapy can also be helpful for addressing symptoms of anxiety.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is frequently used to treat anxiety disorders and involves identifying and changing the ways that people think and react to sources of anxiety.
  • Exposure therapy is a form of CBT in which people are gradually exposed to the source of their anxiety. Over time, feelings of anxiety begin to diminish.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you ease the physical symptoms of anxiety?

    In addition to professional treatment, self-help strategies can also be beneficial for relieving physical symptoms of stress. Relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, meditation, and visualization can be effective. Getting regular physical exercise has also been shown to be effective in combatting anxiety.

  • How long do the physical symptoms of anxiety last?

    Physical symptoms of anxiety can be short-lived in some cases, but they can also be longer-lasting depending on the nature of the symptoms. People who have anxiety conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder often have symptoms that happen on most days for six months or longer. For other people, symptoms may only emerge in certain situations or when exposed to certain objects.

  • What are the physical symptoms of severe anxiety?

    In some cases, physical symptoms of anxiety can become so severe that a person experiences a panic attack. Symptoms of a panic attack include chest pain, difficulty breathing, choking sensations, racing heartbeat, hot flashes, hyperventilation, numbness, feelings of detachment, and a sense of impending death.

  • How bad can the physical symptoms of anxiety get?

    Anxiety can become severe enough that it interferes with a person's ability to function in their daily life and creates significant distress. This may be a sign that a person has an anxiety disorder. Panic attacks can be severe enough that they are sometimes mistaken for heart attacks and lead to hospitalization. People may engage in avoidance behaviors that can be life-limiting and make it difficult to do everyday tasks. 

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Deborah R. Glasofer, PhD
Deborah Glasofer, PhD is a professor of clinical psychology and practitioner of cognitive behavioral therapy.