19 Physical Tolls You Didn't Realize Anxiety Can Take On Your Body
Every day we learn more about the mind-body connection, and the physical manifestations of mental illnesses like anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, and although they are treatable, only 36.9 percent of those with anxiety receive treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Without treatment, anxiety can present itself in unusual ways in the body.
"People that have chronic anxiety, that can’t figure out how to manage over a long period of time, can start to have somatic symptoms," Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, tells Bustle. "What that means is that, they’re starting to have physical manifestations of the anxiety. Their body is so stressed all the time, because of all the stress hormones that their brain is releasing from being anxious all the time, that their body starts to have negative effects."
Dr. Forshee says that often when people have physical symptoms of anxiety, they believe there is a physical reason for their aches, and it can be time-consuming to realize their symptoms are caused by anxiety. Recognizing symptoms early can help you identify stress and anxiety and get treatment to keep your anxiety under control.
"When people go through chronic anxiety, the brain believes that you are potentially in danger. So it releases all of these stress hormones to your brain, that puts you in survival mode," Dr. Forshee says.
These stress hormones cause the negative physical effects associated with anxiety. Here are 19 less obvious physical effects of anxiety.
1. It Feels Like You Burnt Your Mouth
Many people with anxiety often feel like they burnt their mouth on something hot. Burning mouth syndrome is a somatic condition that can be worsened by stress. Although there is not a lot of information about this condition, many believe there is a connection with the brain, which is why people with anxiety so often experience it.
2. There's A Ringing In Your Ears
Hearing a ringing in your ears is known as tinnitus, and is often associated with anxiety. This can also show up as feeling like your ears are plugged, where sounds are muted. Although it is unclear exactly what happens to the body, stress can cause tinnitus, and can affect one ear or both.
3. You Can't Stop Yawning
They say yawning is contagious, but if you find yourself yawning all the time, it may be a sign of underlying anxiety. People with anxiety may find themselves yawning uncontrollably before and after anxious episodes, or randomly. This is because yawning is one of the body's responses to stress, which can be exacerbated by anxiety.
4. Unexplained Muscle Pains
Many people with anxiety suffer from random muscle pain. There are multiple reasons for this pain, both physical and mental.
"Anxiety has been shown to be a risk factor for common aches and pains like muscle tension, back pain, soreness, and headaches," Lindsey Elmore PharmD, BCPS, pharmacist and natural wellness expert, tells Bustle. "Anxiety makes people in pain more likely to catastrophize, dwell on the worst possible outcome, avoid movement or activities that could potentially cause injury or additional pain, and anxious people become focused on pain and have a decreased ability to distract oneself from the pain."
5. Cold Feet
Research shows that people with anxiety tend to get cold feet, literally. Simply sweating from anxiety can make your feet feel cold. But when your body activates its stress response, it also often slows the blood flow to your feet and hands, which can make them feel cold, even numb or tingly.
6. Tingling In Your Arms
Similar to the cold feet, some people with anxiety feel tingling or numbness in their arms and legs as well.
"When something stressful happens, we feel anxious and our body responds as if we’re in a life or death situation," Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, host of Women Worriers, tells Bustle. "For many people it’s the physical symptoms that feel most present when anxiety shows up. Tingling in the arms and/or legs is a physical symptom you might not recognize as anxiety."
7. Loss Of Voice
Dr. Forshee says anxiety can cause some patients to lose their voice. The stress from anxiety can cause your throat muscles and vocal chords to tighten, which can cause people to lose their voices. The stress from anxiety is also shown to cause voice cracks, shakiness, and hoarseness.
8. Your Pain Feels Extreme
If you feel you have a low pain tolerance, it may be caused by anxiety. Research on pain has shown that pain has both physical and mental components, and anxiety can make people extra sensitive to pain.
"Anxiety can make you focus more on pain sensations, which can magnify the experience," Sarah Gray, Psy.D., clinical health psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, tells Bustle. "If you are anxious and scanning your body for signs that something is wrong or interpreting physical sensations as harm being done to the body, then this can cause you to interpret normal or mildly uncomfortable sensations as a threat [...] Anxiety on a consistent basis can also set off your 'flight or flight' response in this way, again making your brain more sensitive to any perception of threat, and amplifying the experience of pain."
9. Rashes Or Acne
Your acne might not be random after all. Various skin flare-ups can also be caused by anxiety and the stress hormones your body is producing.
“When there is too much cortisol [a stress hormone], the immune system can be suppressed and this leads to inflammatory responses on the skin," Elmore says. "People with anxiety are at an increased risk for eczema, atopic dermatitis, rash, acne, psoriasis, rosacea, hives, and even hair loss. Simply feeling the effects of anxiety can make you more likely to show it on the outside.”
10. IBS Or Other Digestive Issues
Often when people go to the doctor complaining of bad digestion, they are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. IBS affects a whopping 25 to 45 million people in the United States, and 2 out of 3 people with IBS are women, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. But we are learning more about the mind-gut connection, and many digestive symptoms may be caused by mental illnesses.
"Our mind and gut are interconnected, and thus happiness, joy, and pleasure, as well as anger, anxiety, sadness, and bitterness all trigger physical reactions in our digestive systems," Dr. Caroline Leaf, neuroscientist, mental health expert, and author of Think, Learn, Succeed, tells Bustle. "When we are anxious, we can often experience digestive issues such as a change in appetite, like craving sweets because they can boost our serotonin and make us feel better, a loss of appetite, bloating such as IBS, and constipation."
11. You Feel Disconnected From Your Body
People with anxiety may feel disconnected from their bodies, like they're watching themselves from the outside. This is known as depersonalization-derealization disorder. People with depersonalization-derealization may say they feel "robotic" or "numb". It's not clear what causes depersonalization-derealization, but it may be linked to anxiety, as stress is known to trigger episodes.
12. Loss Of Libido
Loss of libido can be a frustrating effect of anxiety. Anxiety can make it hard to get in the mood in the first place, and often leaves you feeling preoccupied during sex. Anxiety may also increase if you're stressed about the way you look, or feel like your partner will judge you.
But a lull in libido doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong. Sex drives constantly ebb and flow, and it's natural to have lulls. However, if it's bothering you or you feel anxious during sex, that may be a cue to seek help.
13. You're Still Tired After A Full Night's Rest
If you're always tired in the morning, despite getting the recommended eight hours of shut eye, it may be a sign of anxiety.
"Most people live with a mental health disorder for so long it becomes normalized to them. We tend to think of anxiety only as anxiety attacks and symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, but not how it has been manifesting before that,” Brandie Carlos, founder of Therapy for Latinx, tells Bustle. “Some physical symptoms people don't realize are anxiety are sleeping but waking up tired or having nightmares."
14. Foggy Thinking
Thanks to stress hormones, anxiety can mess with your ability to think clearly and make decisions.
"People who have generalized anxiety cannot get the racing thoughts out of their minds no matter how much they try to focus on other tasks," Dr. Forshee says. "Catecholamines [stress hormones] get released and then they take over. They go into the brain and the body and it creates a lot of damage. They get released and go to your frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that controls your ability to have good judgement, impulse control, make decisions, have good attention, stay in concentration, it goes there and literally dims the light to that part of the brain so it’s not functioning as well."
15. Hair Loss
"[People with anxiety] may get a disorder like alopecia, where they have hair falling out from their eyebrows, their eyelashes, everywhere all over their body," Dr. Forshee says.
People with anxiety may suffer from stress-triggered hair loss, where the anxiety causes your hair follicles to press pause. This can affect all parts of your body, like eyebrows and eyelashes, but also from the top of your head.
16. Erratic Energy Levels
People with anxiety can feel both extremes of energy, though neither is particularly constructive when it comes to addressing and managing anxiety and stress.
"Many people experience low energy levels when they are anxious, which further impacts their ability to deal with the situation at hand. On the other hand, some people become extremely hyper when they are anxious as a way to keep distracted and ignore the problem they are facing, which can be equally destructive when it comes to dealing with the root cause of our anxiety," Leaf says.
17. You Often Feel Dizzy
Dizziness is a fairly common symptom of anxiety. Dizziness is common because it may be a result of hormonal stress response, hyperventilation, or exhaustion. These are all common responses to anxiety and stress, and can all cause sensations of dizziness.
18. Your Jaw Hurts
Many people with anxiety complain of jaw pain. Anxiety can cause jaw pain in a number of ways. Jaw pain could be caused by tightening muscles, or by unknowingly grinding your teeth at night.
19. You Always Have A Cold
It's no surprise that your mental health affects your immune system. The stress hormones released when one suffers from anxiety can weaken the immune system. Dr. Forshee says this can result in the common cold or nausea, and also long-term illnesses like high blood pressure.
"Chronic stress and activation of the anxiety system like this, can result in blood pressure problems, a lot of medical problems, as well as [...] make you vulnerable to depression and other somatic systems," Dr. Forshee says.
Dr. Forshee says therapy is a very effective way to treat these physical symptoms because it teaches you how to treat the underlying anxiety at the root of the problem.
"Therapy is quite effective for this, learning how to manage your physiology, learning how to be in tune with your heart rate, and how much tension goes on inside of you can also be helpful," Dr. Forshee says.
If you find yourself suffering from any uncommon physical symptoms, it is important first and foremost to address the underlying stress triggers. Dr. Forshee recommends relaxing techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, recording relaxing voice memos to play, or even collecting inspirational screenshots to calm yourself down when anxiety starts to take over.