What Does Anxiety Feel Like? 6 Physical Symptoms

Common physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is both a psychological and physical experience.

The following are common physical symptoms known to be associated with anxiety:

  • Noticeably strong or fast heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Muscle tension

Remember, anxiety is most often an adaptive state in which the body is anticipating future threats and is, in a sense, gearing up for a fight-or-flight moment. The brain activates the body --the heart, circulatory, and muscular systems – so that you will be ready to engage or flee.

However, anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), are characterized by persistent and intense symptoms. In fact, to meet formal criteria for GAD, anxiety must be associated with multiple physical symptoms. In youth, the presence of even one of these symptoms is sufficient for a diagnosis to be made. 

Muscle Tension

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The muscle tension associated with normative anxiety might involve a brief tensing of the back and neck that relaxes when a threat passes. The muscle tensions described by people with GAD include unrelenting aches and pains in overly active shoulder, back, neck and jaw muscles. The tension might also include a restless fidgeting of tense legs, or a grinding of the teeth. These manifestations of muscle tension do not subside in the absence of a threat; rather, they persist until individuals implement specific relaxation or mindfulness skills, or try medications to promote a more relaxed state. 

Headache and Dizziness

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The psychological distress associated with GAD involves chronic worry for most of one’s waking hours.  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. When accompanied by an increased heart rate and changes in body temperature, dizziness can also occur. 

Stomachaches and Other Digestive Problems

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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 be particularly negatively impactful on day-to-day functioning. Beyond being uncomfortable and interfering in their own right, these symptoms may perpetuate worries about the presence of a medical illness.

Edginess

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The edginess associated with GAD can manifest behaviorally as irritability or physically as trembling and shaking. The fidgeting or restlessness may be more obvious to observers than to the anxious individual in some cases. 

Tiredness and Insomnia

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Chronic worry, simply put, is exhausting. Therefore, it is typical for people with GAD to endorse fatigue. In other cases, the worry or other physical symptoms of anxiety make it difficult either to fall asleep or to stay asleep. Even in the short-term, this takes a toll on other aspects of physical and psychological wellbeing. In extreme cases, difficulty sleeping leads to insomnia. For individuals experiencing even mild disruptions in sleep, anxiety treatment is likely to involve changes to the bedtime routine.

Shortness of Breath

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In the context of increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and/or dizziness, shortness of breath can occur. However, this constellation of symptoms that fit the description of a panic attack, are more likely to occur in those with GAD and panic disorder. They are less common in individuals with uncomplicated GAD. 

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety are Uncomfortable, but Not Dangerous

Of course, physical symptoms are only considered a manifestation of anxiety if they are 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. The physical complaints that are symptomatic of an anxiety problem are no less uncomfortable than those ascribed to a medical condition. As you undergo treatment for the anxiety, the symptoms and your tools to cope with them will improve.

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