Why Anxiety Can Make You Literally Shake – & What To Do About It

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
If you’ve ever reckoned with severe bouts of anxiety you’ll know that it is a full-body experience. Not only does it take up every bit of space in your brain but it also affects your body’s functioning – from sweating to trouble breathing to random tics and twitches.
Anxiety's effects on the body are well documented. A mental health problem or distressed state of mind can often manifest physically and some people might experience tenser muscles (like a clenched jaw) due to anxiety. One of the physical responses to anxiety that can feel particularly out of control is when it makes you shiver and shake.
Dr Ian Nnatu, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London, says that it is one of the most common anxiety symptoms and can involve the hands, arms or the whole body shaking, depending on the severity of the anxiety.
It happens, he says, "when the body’s natural fight or flight response is triggered or activated in response to perceived danger. When the response is triggered, this leads to an increase in the stress hormone adrenaline, which activates the nerves and muscles, preparing the body to flee or attack. This is entirely natural and helps to keep us safe."
The irony is that when our body physically responds in this way, it is a show of how well our evolved response to perceived danger is working. However there is a difference between a natural response to a 'real' perceived danger and the way in which anxious thoughts and fears manifest. Experiencing a surge in adrenaline in the face of something you can see and name can be understood (even if it feels overwhelming) but the response for a broader sense of anxiety can be disquieting. Finding yourself shaking and shivering can make your body feel even more out of your control. And if you don’t know what’s happening, it could well make that anxious spell worse.
Happily, there are things you can do to quieten the shaking, both while it’s happening and in the long term.
"One of the ways to reduce shaking and anxiety is through breathing techniques," says Dr Nnatu. "Deep breathing helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and induce a state of calmness." He also points to progressive muscular relaxation, combined with deep breathing, as an effective technique. In progressive muscular relaxation you follow a script like this and tense muscles as you breathe in before relaxing them as you breathe out. Mindfulness and increased movement can help, too – mindfulness to calm a wracked, anxious brain, and running or brisk walking to use up your excess energy and help dissipate the adrenaline.
As for longer term management, Dr Nnatu advises pursuing treatment for anxiety more broadly. "In the long term, cognitive behavioural therapy can be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders as well as mindfulness and regular yoga practice. Some find that lifestyle changes such as improving their diet, exercise and sleep also helps in the long term."
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of support, please contact Anxiety UK or call 03444 775 774.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series