Stress

It’s Not Just In Your Head: How Your Anxiety Might Be Affecting You Physically

July 10, 2020

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As we’ve expanded our knowledge on the human body over the years, one conclusion we’ve reached is that the mind and body have a complex connection, but a connection nonetheless. When it comes to our mental health, the symptoms that we feel certainly affect our mood, behavior, and emotional processing. But what about the times that we feel a negative impact on our bodies? 

When we consider conditions such as anxiety, a lot of us can probably think of how our nerves or worries make us physically feel. Maybe you feel sick to your stomach. Maybe you sweat or feel your heart rate increase. A lot of us have and will experience feelings of anxiety from time to time that affect us mentally and physically. For many others who struggle with an anxiety disorder, the vast effects it can have on the mind and the body can result in distress and challenges in daily life. Regardless of the extent to which you experience anxiety in your life, it is important to understand not only the symptoms we experience mentally, but the physical ones as well. 

What Are the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety isn’t just in your head...you might actually feel it physically.

When it comes to anxiety, there are some hallmark symptoms that come to mind: restlessness, irritability, excessive worry, racing thoughts, inability to concentrate. These symptoms certainly cause a lot of distress, but are mostly localized to the mind and our overall disposition. It is crucial to have an awareness that these symptoms help to define anxiety and related disorders, however it is just as important to gain an understanding of how anxiety can have an impact on you physically. So what are the physical symptoms of anxiety? Though this is not an exhaustive list, here are some common physical symptoms of anxiety

  • Gastrointestinal (GI) Symptoms. You can experience a variety of sensations within your GI system including nausea, stomach pain, problems with digestion, difficulty eating, and even excessive gas.
  • Sleep Issues. Insomnia is a common symptom of anxiety. Other difficulties with sleeping include waking up frequently throughout the night or having problems staying asleep. 
  • Various Forms of Pain. Headaches tend to be a common physical symptom of anxiety. But there can also be more general effects in the musculature such as muscle tension and pain
  • Skin Issues. Think of the relationship between your skin and emotions in terms of blushing when you are around a love interest or when you receive a nice compliment. In the same way, anxiety can affect your skin. It turns out you can actually get strange rashes, eczema, or other flare-ups as a result of your anxiety. 
  • Effects on the Autonomic Nervous System. Quite a bit of physical symptoms actually fall under this category. The ANS controls a lot of the more automatic processes that happen in our bodies. Anxiety can cause you to: breathe shorter and more rapidly, have a pounding or increased heart rate, tremble or shake, sweat excessively, and yawn more often. 

When your body feels threatened or under a great deal of stress, it undergoes something called the “fight or flight response.” This is a natural reaction that has been preserved over the course of evolution and dates back to when our ancestors were under physical threat by predators in the wild. It results in a number of physical responses in the body that include advantageous things like dilated pupils and directing our circulation away from processes like digestion and toward our muscles and other components of the body that are more helpful for immediate survival. Believe it or not though, our feelings of anxiety can actually trigger this response within our body, creating a number of unwanted symptoms (some of which are mentioned in the list above). These physical symptoms, among others, can be challenging to deal with in one’s daily life. 

A man holds over his heart as if it is racing, a common physical symptom of anxiety.
The physical symptoms that can be caused by anxiety are equally as troubling as the mental symptoms for a lot of people. Feeling like you are struggling to breathe and feeling like your heart is racing are two common physical effects that your anxiety could have on your body. 

Can Anxiety Make You Cold?

Cold sensations and chills are actually a common physical symptom of anxiety

Yet another interesting physical effect of anxiety is its ability to alter how our body temperature feels. Feeling chilled or having cold sensations is an especially confusing physical symptom that can result from anxiety, and it thus deserves some special attention in order to understand how something as simple as feeling cold can actually be a consequence of your mood and emotions.

Interestingly enough there are even multiple different reasons that your anxiety could be making you feel cold. Here are some of the ways we know that cold sensations and anxiety are associated: 

  • It’s related to sweating. Though it sounds kind of paradoxical, the sweating symptom that can occur with anxiety might actually be what’s making you cold. As we mentioned before, anxiety is kind of like a fight or flight response, but it’s often a poor one. When your body naturally heats up as a result and probably produces some sweat, coming across cold air can make you feel pretty cold. So anxiety can essentially cause hot and cold sensations, but when the process of heating up is less noticeable, it’s the feelings of cold that we tend to focus on. 
  • There’s poor circulation in your extremities. When your hands and feet are cold, it can feel like your entire body is cold. Essentially, anxiety can cause us to hyperventilate and consequently our blood flows less efficiently. Blood flow is also directed toward our larger organs that are more crucial to survival, and thus our extremities are left with sensations of being cold. 
  • It could be fear causing your chills. This is especially relevant to people who struggle with panic disorder and experience panic attacks or fear of having them. It is a complicated reaction that isn’t entirely understood, but something about the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a sudden fight or flight response can cause a chill or shiver down your spine. 
  • You might be more sensitive to feeling cold. People who struggle with anxiety are often more sensitive than the average person to bodily sensations. Whereas some people might ignore particular physical sensations, anxious individuals may be hyper focused on them. Feeling slightly cold in general can spike your anxiety in terms of wondering if something is wrong, and thus it becomes a cycle. 
A person wraps up in a blanket appearing to be cold, another physical symptom of anxiety
Cold sensations and chills aren’t really symptoms that come to mind when we think about anxiety. But it’s important to recognize that you might be feeling cold a lot of the time as a result of struggling with anxiety. For many reasons, there are physical effects that accompany the fight or flight response that can result in your body feeling chilled.

I Have My Ways Of Dealing With My Psychological Symptoms, So How Can I Treat the Physical Ones?

How to manage the physical effects that anxiety has on your body. 

As we’ve mentioned previously, the physical effects that anxiety can have on the body are often just as challenging to deal with as the effect it has mentally. Thankfully, there are still plenty of self-care related adjustments you can make in your life in order to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety. Here are just a few suggestions in terms of managing your symptoms: 

  • Maintaining a healthy diet. Try limiting your sugar and carb intake as much as you can and opt for healthier choices that will provide your body with more energy like high fiber and unsaturated fats. You’ll also want to avoid substances that could actually make your anxiety worse, such as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. 
  • Being physically active. Frequent exercise not only helps release chemicals that can boost your mood and allow you to feel happier, but it’s also great for your physical health. While reducing your stress in general and also strengthening your body physically, exercising is a great coping strategy to reduce a variety of symptoms. It can also help improve your sleep!
  • Utilizing relaxation techniques. Yoga and meditation are just two examples of relaxation strategies that you can try. Breathing exercises are great for calming down, and can actually relax the body physically such as by slowing heart rate. Relaxation and mindfulness techniques are a great way to relieve stress and physical tension in the body, and also distract and ground oneself mentally. 
A woman is sitting and doing yoga meditation, a great strategy for coping with the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Relaxation techniques like yoga can promote a sense of calm both mentally and physically within your body. Using strategies such as yoga or meditation can ultimately help reduce a lot of the symptoms associated with anxiety, including the physical ones. 

The extensive impact that anxiety can have on the body both mentally and physically can be troubling and intimidating to deal with. Symptoms like headaches or feeling cold can be associated with your anxiety, even though you might want to attribute them to other reasons. The good news is, having an awareness of the physical symptoms anxiety can cause is one step in the right direction in terms of reducing your symptoms. More importantly, having an idea of how you can encompass a variety of symptoms in your self-care or treatment plan will ultimately help you reduce the stress and challenges you experience in your daily life.

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