Our culture's greater understanding of anxiety is pretty narrow. We think of someone anxious, and we conjure up an image in our head of a twitchy-yet-endearing person who says awkward things at weddings and spills wine at dinner parties. But living with an anxiety disorder doesn't only mean you've got some character quirks that set you apart from other people. Anxiety is a mental illness that has just as many physical symptoms as a lifelong disease such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.
There are many biological factors that cause your body to react in unpleasant ways when you have anxiety. Your nervous system is more sensitive to external triggers, which means you physically respond to things that may not affect other people. Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist with more than two decades of experience and the author of You 1 Anxiety 0, tells Bustle that these bodily reactions can make us feel like the world is caving in around us. "The physical symptoms of anxiety are horrible, intense and hard to ignore," Aman says. "You often feel like you are going to die." Fun!
If you're not quite sure whether your physical symptoms are those of anxiety, read through the information below and see if any of them ring true for you. If they do, don't hesitate to reach out for the help you need — and very much deserve.
Here are eight physical signs of anxiety you shouldn't ignore.
Strained Or Shallow Breathing
When you're responding to an anxiety-inducing situation, your body automatically slips into fight-or-flight response, as if it's preparing you to face a life-threatening situation. Stress hormones are then released that constrict your blood vessels, and Aman tells Bustle you end up inadvertently "breathing to give you aerobic energy to fight or run." You might feel like you just can't catch your breath, even if you're sitting still and not lifting a finger. Extreme shortness of breath is also identified as a precursor to a panic attack.
Increased Heart Rate
"The biological fear response is a release of hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine," Aman tells Bustle. That "sets off a series of physical reactions," and increased heart rate is one of the first things a person with anxiety will experience when they're placed in a stressful situation. It goes hand-in-hand with shortness of breath. In some cases, it can feel like you're about to have a heart attack.
Upset Stomach Or Abdominal Cramps
Changes in your autonomic nervous system brought on by anxiety can result in indigestion. Aman says all your "blood is going to large muscles, away from the stomach, which is why it gets upset." To make matters worse, the adrenaline that courses through your body abruptly turns sugar into glucose, which can disrupt the way your digestive system naturally functions. It also speeds up the way food travels through your body, potentially resulting in abdominal pain, gas, and strange bowel movements. Finally, anxiety can spark weird changes in your appetite that lead to even weirder alterations in your intestinal tract.
Your digestive system has its own rhythm, and when it's disrupted by the sudden entrance of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, the results are unpredictable. That means someone with chronic anxiety could possibly be living with daily ups and downs in their digestive system.
Pain In Your Jaw Or Neck
Anxiety can cause the muscles in your body to tighten and tense up. One place in particular that happens is your jaw. Clenching of the teeth is a common side effect of anxiety, which directly results in aches and pains in the jaw — and this is only worsened if you also have a habit of grinding your teeth. Even something as simple as facial tension, which is a pretty standard symptom of anxiety, results in jaw pain.
Side effects like jaw discomfort aren't talked about very often, and that's why people sometimes panic when they experience it. "It is so easy to be afraid of it and think that there is something wrong with you physically," Aman says, "which creates even more intensity." Don't think you have to brave out these symptoms all on your own. Reach out to a trusted medical professional and see what can be done.
It's certainly not the most glamorous of side effects, but sweating for no reason is brought on by untreated anxiety. All the hormonal buzz happening in your nervous system makes your internal temperature rise. Pair that with the increased heart rate and you've got yourself sweaty armpits, a glistening forehead, and sticky palms. Then you become self-conscious about your damp blouse, which only makes you more anxious, which makes you sweat more, and — well, you get the picture.
Aman says fight-or-flight reactions like these are meant "to keep you safe if you were in physical danger." After all, that's exactly how anxiety makes us feel — as if we were in immediate danger. Training yourself to understand that you're not in danger at all will help you manage and prevent side effects like profusely sweating.
Chronic Headaches Or Migraines
Anxiety can bring on headaches that make you feel like the center of your brain is about to explode. These kinds of tension headaches range from mildly uncomfortable to so excruciating that you can't carry out your daily tasks. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says headaches are an extremely common side effect of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and that people who suffer from migraines are much more likely to have anxiety than the general population.
Battling anxiety is an exhausting task that sucks the energy right out of you. There are all kinds of reasons your body might be fatigued in relation to anxiety. Maybe your anxiety is preventing you from sleeping soundly, perhaps you've been keeping yourself way too busy in an attempt to hide your anxiety, or your brain might simply be tired from all the worrying. Whatever the case may be, fatigue and anxiety tend to travel as a pair.
To be clear, this isn't the kind of fatigue that makes you yawn and encourages you to go to bed early. Being tired from being anxious can make your whole body ache, your eyes burn, and your head pound. It's a whole new level of exhaustion that stops you from living out your daily life.
Restlessness That Won't Allow You To Sit Still
Even though you want to chill out and relax, your anxiety doesn't always allow it. You might experience a restlessness so invasive that you have no other choice but to move around. Aman describes it as feeling "highly energized, like you are jumping out of your skin." This is especially familiar in people who suffer from high-functioning anxiety. It may look like they're tending to busy schedules, but what they're really doing is living out a basic symptom of their mental illness.
The Bottom Line
No two people with anxiety will have a list of symptoms that looks exactly the same, but if any of these feel hauntingly familiar, you should speak with a doctor right away about your anxiety.
"I believe the first step in curing anxiety is understanding it biologically," Aman says. "There is help out there. Why stay suffering?" Bring a list of symptoms to a trusted professional and see what they can do to help you get back on track.