When you're about to give a presentation, it can be pretty clear where your upset stomach is coming from. But when this problem becomes chronic, the cause can be less clear. While anxiety disorders are primarily treated with therapy and psychiatry, the symptoms can be so overwhelming that patients may bring themselves in to a doctor first — complaining of a myriad of physical problems. So doctors are some of the best at pinpointing the most common
physical symptoms of anxiety.
If a patient has not yet connected the dots, the link between anxious feelings and physical symptoms can be confusing. "I often tell patients that every part of the body is connected in incredibly complex ways, and when stressed the brain will influence the body, and vice versa," osteopathic primary care physician
Dr. Aaron George, tells Bustle. "Sometimes it is challenging to be able to truly tell the difference." So doctors stay aware of these connections, and ask patients specific questions to get the the root of each problem.
"As anyone who has experienced anxiety will tell you, it brings about both psychological and physical symptoms — both of which can be alarming, and sometimes overwhelming," psychotherapist
Natalija Rascotina tells Bustle. "[...] These are essentially your body responding to how you are feeling." So if you don't yet have coping mechanisms that work for you, your body may struggle more to respond to these feelings.
Here are the nine most common physical symptoms doctors see in people with anxiety.
In extreme cases,
anxiety symptoms can feel like a heart attack. Doctors — both in emergency rooms and primary care offices — are keenly aware of this sensation.
"To be fair, when you suddenly have heart palpitations, trembling, chest pain, and feel dizzy or unsteady – that’s pretty scary,"
Kevin Gilliland, PsyD and executive director of Innovation360, tells Bustle. "And yes, those are some symptoms of heart attack. Unfortunately, they are also the same symptoms of a panic attack." Even though these feelings may be caused by thoughts and emotions, rather than physical processes, the best bet is still to go to a hospital if you're in this intense of physical distress.
Doctors may observe patients come in with what they experience as memory problems who actually have undiagnosed anxiety disorders — and perfectly functioning memory. The anxiety can be so overwhelming, however, the symptoms can feel as scary as possible
"Another common physical presentation involves attention and concentration, which logically leads to memory problems," Dr. Gilliland says. "[...] If you can’t concentrate and stay present in a conversation, you might end up thinking you have dementia," Dr. Gilliland says. It's valid to discuss these worries with a doctor, and a few sessions exploring potential causes may help you find a solution.
271 EAK MOTO/Shutterstock
If you come into your doctor's office with complaints about not being able to sleep, chances are they'll discuss with you whether or not you've been experiencing anxiety in your daily life.
"Perhaps the most common complaint from anxiety are sleep problems," Dr. Gilliland says. "It only sounds minor to people that sleep, but disrupted sleep is devastating to our mental health, physical health, performance at work, and things we enjoy." Doctors understand how devastating
insomnia can be, and the right doctor can help you find the treatment you need to finally get some rest. Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock
General aches and pains can be really impactful to your daily life. When patients come in with tension, or complaints of this kind of vague pain, doctors may identify these symptoms as caused by anxiety.
"It's believed that headache and back pain are some of the most common psychosomatic conditions," Rascotina says. So if you have aches and pains with no discernible physical cause, you may be experiencing the physical effects of an anxiety disorder. Therapy and medication may be able to help.
When a patient describes symptoms that tend to fit together in anxiety diagnoses, but not with other illnesses, doctors may inquire more about the patient's life to get more information. This is particularly true with abdominal pain.
"For the patient with unusual abdominal discomfort and a normal physical exam, I'll often inquire about sleep, diet, work, school, and relationships," Dr. George says. "Many times, this will open a door to a conversation on a recent bad breakup or stress at the office." If your doctor uncovers that your symptoms may be anxiety-based, they can help you find a therapist who can help.
When patients come in with dry mouth (medically known as xerostomia), and doctors cannot identify other causes, anxiety is a known potential diagnosis.
"Xerostomia is a condition where you are not producing enough saliva,"
Dr. Hervé Damas, MD, MBA, tells Bustle. " Studies have shown that increased levels of cortisol are related to hyposalivation." Basically, stress and anxiety can lead to symptoms like dry mouth. A doctor may identify this in their office, and help guide you through treatment.
Anxiety is well-known for causing a "fight-or-flight" reaction. When your body goes through this, you may experience symptoms of overheating or flushing that are indicative of this intense biological reaction to stress.
"The neurotransmitters cause increased metabolic activity as your body prepares for 'fight-or-flight," Dr. Damas says. "As a result of this, you generate more heat, and your bodies natural cooling system kicks in. Feelings of warmth and flushing are common in anxiety." Doctors may help you mitigate these symptoms and find you help for the associated feelings of anxiety.
Doctors, whether primary care physicians or gastroenterological specialists, are keenly aware of the connection between the brain and the gut — which is played out very often in digestive issues caused by anxiety.
"You can get stomach pain or digestive problems [with anxiety] because the body reduces digestive functioning," licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, tells Bustle. "There’s also a lot of new research into the
brain-gut axis, we’ll be learning a lot more in the next few years about digestion and psychological symptoms." Finding relief for both the anxiety and its physical symptoms is possible with the help of medical professionals.
The symptoms of anxiety can exist all over your body. Doctors, as well as dentists, can pinpoint these symptoms when they get to know a little bit more about the patient.
"I’ve known some clients who went to the dentist for tooth pain and it was actually tension in the jaw muscles," Dr. Daramus says. "Your flight-or-flight response reduces the functioning of other body systems in order to use those resources to survive." Your dentist may suggest you see a therapist, who can help you find ways to relieve some tension before bed.
When doctors see patients coming in with recurring infections, viruses, or
low white blood cell counts, they may notice problems with that patient's immune system. Although a myriad of diagnoses can cause immune system problems, anxiety is one of these.
"Finally, when you have a lot of anxiety and spend a lot of time in fight-or-flight, your body may lack the resources to fight off illnesses as well, so you might get sick a lot more," Dr. Daramus says. Finding healthy coping mechanisms and professional treatment for your anxiety may help you rebuild the strength you need to have your immune system bounce back.
Although anxiety is most commonly treated through home remedies and therapy, doctors are often at the frontline of diagnosis. Your primary care physician is there to treat your health as a whole — so it is in their interest to identify when your mental health may be impacting your physical wellbeing. Doctors know of all sorts of different diagnoses that can cause different types of discomfort, and can help you identify not only the cause of your problems, but also the best possible treatment.