Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy Our Bodies Often Tell the Story of Anxiety Before Our Minds Do

Our Bodies Often Tell the Story of Anxiety Before Our Minds Do

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Anxiety, a common yet complex emotion, affects us not only mentally but also physically. The intricate relationship between our mind and body can lead to physical symptoms that are sometimes the first indicators of underlying anxiety.

These physical manifestations range from subtle cues like increased heart rate and muscle tension to more overt signs such as headaches, digestive issues, and fatigue. Often, these symptoms arise even before an individual consciously acknowledges their anxious state, acting as an early warning system.

This interplay highlights how deeply intertwined our emotional and physical health are, underscoring the importance of a holistic approach to understanding and managing anxiety. By paying attention to these physical signals, individuals can gain valuable insights into their mental wellbeing and seek timely interventions.

The link between anxiety and physical health

Anxiety is not just a state of mind; it has a profound impact on our physical health. The “fight or flight” response, triggered by stress and anxiety, activates our sympathetic nervous system, leading to a cascade of physiological changes. A 2016 study revealed that chronic anxiety could lead to an increased risk of physical ailments like heart disease and digestive disorders.

This response, while beneficial in short-term situations, can become detrimental when constantly activated, putting undue stress on various body systems. Prolonged anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns, weaken the immune system, and increase the risk of hypertension, further compounding its effects on overall health.

The hormonal imbalances caused by chronic stress can affect metabolic processes, leading to issues like weight gain and increased blood sugar levels. These findings underscore the importance of addressing anxiety not only as a mental health issue but also as a significant factor in physical wellness.

The physical symptoms of anxiety

Common physical symptoms of anxiety include an increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are part of the body’s acute stress response, preparing it to face perceived threats. But when anxiety becomes chronic, these symptoms can persist and significantly impact daily life.

A 2005 study explored how chronic anxiety leads to prolonged activation of the stress response system, resulting in symptoms like muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue. These physical manifestations are the body’s way of signalling that it is under constant stress.

These physical symptoms can create a feedback loop, where the discomfort they cause can heighten the sense of anxiety, leading to a worsening of symptoms. Recognising and addressing these physical aspects of anxiety is therefore crucial in breaking this cycle and improving overall health and well-being.

The role of the brain in anxiety-related physical symptoms

The brain plays a crucial role in how anxiety affects the body. Anxiety disorders are associated with changes in certain brain areas, like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. These changes can alter how the brain processes stress and anxiety, leading to physical symptoms. A study published in the Psychiatric Clinics of North America highlighted how these brain changes can influence the body’s stress response, explaining why individuals with anxiety disorders often experience physical symptoms.

The altered neural pathways can result in an exaggerated stress response, which manifests as various physical symptoms like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. This heightened response can make everyday stressors feel more overwhelming, leading to a heightened state of physical arousal even in the absence of real danger. Over time, this constant state of alertness can take a toll on the body, potentially leading to chronic health issues like heart disease and hypertension.

These brain changes can disrupt normal sleep patterns, further exacerbating the physical symptoms of anxiety. Understanding these neural mechanisms is key to developing more effective treatments for anxiety that address both the psychological and physical aspects of the disorder.

Gastrointestinal issues and anxiety

Anxiety can also manifest in the gastrointestinal system. Many people with anxiety disorders report symptoms like stomach cramps, indigestion, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Research published in the journal PLOS One suggests a strong link between anxiety and gastrointestinal disorders, with anxiety potentially exacerbating these conditions.

This connection is often referred to as the gut-brain axis, highlighting how stress and anxiety can directly impact gut health and function. Anxiety can disrupt the normal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, and nausea. These digestive issues, in turn, can worsen anxiety, creating a vicious cycle that can be challenging to break.

Chronic anxiety can alter the composition of the gut microbiota, which plays a crucial role in overall health and can affect mood and behaviour. This highlights the need for a holistic approach to treating anxiety, considering both mental health and physical symptoms, including those related to the gastrointestinal system. Understanding and addressing the link between anxiety and gastrointestinal issues can lead to more effective treatment strategies and an improved quality of life for those affected.

The impact of anxiety on the cardiovascular system

Anxiety’s effect on the cardiovascular system is another area of concern. Symptoms like increased heart rate and blood pressure are common during anxiety episodes. Long-term, this can strain the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of hypertension and heart disease. A study published in Health Psychology Open found a correlation between high anxiety levels and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

This relationship is particularly concerning, given the chronic nature of many anxiety disorders. Persistent anxiety can lead to a consistent elevation of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which, over time, can damage blood vessels and heart tissue.

These hormones can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries, further increasing the risk of heart-related complications. The findings highlight the importance of managing anxiety, not just for mental wellbeing but also for cardiovascular health. It underscores the need for integrated care approaches that address both the psychological and physical aspects of anxiety, including its impact on heart health. By doing so, individuals with anxiety can significantly reduce their risk of developing long-term cardiovascular issues.

Respiratory changes due to anxiety

Breathing changes are a hallmark of anxiety. Rapid, shallow breathing, or hyperventilation, can occur during anxiety attacks, affecting oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. This can lead to symptoms like dizziness and lightheadedness. Experts suggest that chronic anxiety could exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, further highlighting the mind-body connection.

The altered breathing patterns associated with anxiety can trigger or worsen respiratory issues as they disrupt the normal balance of respiratory function. This disruption can be particularly problematic for individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, making them more sensitive to anxiety-induced breathing changes.

The stress response associated with anxiety can cause inflammation in the respiratory system, aggravating conditions like bronchitis and asthma. Managing anxiety, therefore, becomes crucial in mitigating these respiratory effects. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and relaxation therapies can be effective in regulating breathing patterns and reducing the physical impact of anxiety on the respiratory system. By addressing both the mental and physical aspects of anxiety, individuals can improve their overall respiratory health and reduce the exacerbation of symptoms.

Musculoskeletal responses to anxiety

Chronic anxiety often leads to muscle tension and pain. The body’s natural response to stress is to tense up, which, over time, can lead to chronic pain conditions. A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine indicated that individuals with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop chronic musculoskeletal pain.

This correlation highlights the significant impact that prolonged mental stress can have on the body. Chronic anxiety can lead to a heightened state of muscle tension, which over time may result in pain and discomfort in various parts of the body, including the back, neck, and shoulders. This constant state of tension not only exacerbates the physical pain but can also feed back into the cycle of anxiety, creating a loop where pain increases anxiety, which in turn leads to more tension and pain.

This ongoing cycle can contribute to the development of other issues such as fatigue and sleep disturbances, compounding the overall impact on health and wellbeing. Recognising and addressing the link between anxiety and muscle tension is therefore vital in breaking this cycle and improving both mental and physical health. Management strategies, including relaxation techniques, physical therapy, and anxiety-specific treatments, can be effective in reducing muscle tension and alleviating associated pain.


Understanding the physical manifestations of anxiety is crucial for comprehensive treatment and management. Recognizing these symptoms as part of a broader anxiety response can lead to more effective interventions, emphasizing the importance of treating both the mind and body in anxiety disorders.

Amelia Hartfield, PsyD is a health psychologist and researcher specialising in the psychophysiology of anxiety disorders.

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