Anxiety and worry are definitely emotional experiences, but ask anyone who's had an anxiety episode or who lives with an anxiety disorder, and they'll tell you that it can be a physical problem, too. In fact, studies have long linked anxiety to physical conditions like migraines and even thyroid disease.
"The physical symptoms play a major role in anxiety," says Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do. "If someone experiences shortness of breath, for example, they are more likely to think anxious thoughts like, I'm going to die. That in turn, spikes their anxiety. It can be a vicious cycle that is hard to break unless you address the physical symptoms."
While people might experience anxiety differently, Morin says that some physical signs of anxiety can include unexplained muscle tension, problems sleeping, headaches, and stomachaches. You might also feel overall fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea, or irritable bowel syndrome, and general irritability.
"Some people also grind their teeth while others experience muscle soreness due to keeping their muscles tensed up much of the time," she says, adding that if someone is experiencing an acute episode of anxiety or panic, they might also experience shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, and increased heart rate.
Anxiety often creates a physical response, because it causes both your brain and your body to go into survival mode.
"The brain activates a fight-or-flight response in the body when it perceives a threat," Morin says. "If you were in physical danger, that response would help you get oxygen to your lungs and blood to your muscles so you could escape or defend yourself."
But for people with anxiety, that fight-or-flight response gets activated even when they aren't in immediate physical danger, and so their bodies spend a lot of time being on high alert, making them more prone to physical symptoms like exhaustion or upset stomachs.
If you're going through some of the bodily symptoms Morin describes, she suggests keeping a journal (or getting a mood-tracking app if you want to be eco-friendly) to track them. If they persist, it might be helpful to see a primary care doctor who can rule out any other physical health issues and direct you to a mental health professional if they think you might be experiencing anxiety.
"For someone with an anxiety disorder, it's important to seek professional help," Morin says. "A psychotherapist can assist with addressing the physical symptoms, as well as the emotional and cognitive symptoms."