Learn / Understanding the Physical Toll: How Anxiety Impacts the Body and Ways to Cope

Understanding the Physical Toll: How Anxiety Impacts the Body and Ways to Cope

Grace Ogren
 May 22nd, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Anxiety can have measurable effects on the body.
  • Some effects can even be mistaken for other health conditions.
  • Professional help can treat anxiety and reduce physical symptoms.

Learning how anxiety affects the body can help you understand mysterious symptoms and the impact untreated mental health conditions can have. Although anxiety can manifest in many ways, not everyone will experience physical symptoms. On the other hand, some people may feel the physical symptoms most acutely. 

Anxiety’s physical symptoms could first seem purely like a physical health condition, especially if you’ve never been diagnosed with it. Set an appointment with your doctor if you’re wondering if your symptoms may be caused by or related to anxiety.

What Is Anxiety?

People with anxiety disorders experience frequent and persistent worry1 out of their control.  This can manifest as generalized anxiety disorder or as a specific phobia, such as social anxiety disorder or panic disorder. Even when temporary stressors resolve, people with anxiety disorders don’t experience relief. Anxiety can be thought of as a constant anticipation of future threats2.

For example, someone with anxiety may constantly worry about their job, their health, or the safety of their loved ones. They’ll perseverate on worries like, “What if I’m not performing well and get fired? What if my loved one gets into an accident or gets sick? What if I get sick or hurt?”  It may feel like a preventative measure to prepare for worst-case scenarios, but in reality, these festering worries just lead to stress and anxiety.

A lack of issues does not alleviate their anxiety. That often means they need to learn how to reduce their anxiety manually, since it won’t fade in times without stress. They can learn to counter recurrent and persistent worries, stopping the thoughts from lingering and causing symptoms of anxiety.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Some of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety3 include:

  1. Headaches
  2. Shortness of breath
  3. Nausea
  4. Diarrhea
  5. Back pain
  6. Insomnia
  7. Racing heart (also called tachycardia)

Anxiety affecting your physical health is also called somatization4, where emotions and feelings express as physical pain or discomfort. This can happen with other mental health conditions too, but is especially common with anxiety. 

Explore Anxiety Treatment Centers

Cognitive Effects

Anxiety can affect how you process and take in information5. For example, if you’re in a near-constant state of hyperarousal, benign events could seem scary or exacerbate your anxiety. Feeling anxious can also make it harder to make educated decisions and react appropriately.

Anxiety may prevent you from concentrating and remembering dates, information, and tasks you need to get done. If your brain is stressed, it may not feel like those things are important enough to be remembered. Instead, you may perseverate on potential threats and prepare for fear.

Anxiety can also distort your perception5. It can cause stronger reactions to cues of threat, like fearful expressions, an edged tone, or an unwanted task you suddenly must do. The threat itself may not even be a threat or is a small one, but a distorted perception from anxiety makes it feel much scarier. You may experience friends and loved ones questioning your reactions or anxiety levels and telling you “it’s no big deal.” From your perspective, though, it does feel like a big deal. 

Immune System and Stress Response

A perceived threat triggers your body’s stress response2. Since anxiety can alter perceptions and make non-threats seem threatening, it can regularly activate the stress response. This sends floods of stress hormones and other stress responses throughout the body. 

The stress response is intended to help you survive2 and escape threats, so your heart rate increases, you get a spike in adrenaline, your muscles tense for action, and you breathe faster. While this works great in certain situations, it’s not always intended to happen and can feel distressing.

Excess stress hormones can affect the immune system6 similarly to an inflammatory disorder. Hormone-releasing glands may work ineffectively after continued activation and use. This can also make you more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and other health problems, especially if you have chronic stress or long-term untreated anxiety.

Gastrointestinal Effects

Anxiety can sometimes feel like a pit in your stomach. Your brain and gut share a strong connection7, which is why anxiety can cause nausea, pain, and diarrhea. The gut-brain axis is a complex communication network that involves the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive areas of the brain to your gut. Anxiety can activate the autonomic nervous system8, which can impact your gut and lead to symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea. These painful and disruptive physical symptoms can also worsen your anxiety, creating a cycle.

Treating one or both parts of the cycle can help you find relief. Therapy and medications for anxiety can relieve gastrointestinal symptoms, and treatment for gastrointestinal symptoms can relieve anxiety. Treatment targeted at both may be most effective for you.

If you’re feeling nauseous before a presentation or other anxiety-inducing event, you can practice coping skills to soothe stress. Deep, mindful breathing can calm your nervous system. You can try box breathing, where you breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds, and breathe out through your mouth for 4 seconds, then start again from the top. Physical activity and healthy distractions (like reading, cooking, or watching a show you enjoy) can help, too.

Sleep Disturbances

The hyperarousal state caused by anxiety can make it hard to fall asleep9 and stay asleep. Your brain may wake you up more often if it’s used to feeling under threat, especially if you’re having nightmares that trigger the stress response. Anxiety can also trigger nightmares; for example, a parent may have persistent nightmares of losing a child. 

You may compulsively worry about what happened during your day, replay interactions, or start mentally preparing for tomorrow’s threats as you try to fall asleep. Worrying about what happened and what could happen can trigger your stress response and bar your brain from the relaxed state it needs to sleep. 

Those diagnosed with sleep conditions like insomnia could find their anxiety improves once they get insomnia treatment9, and vice versa. Treatment for insomnia depends on which kind you have (trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both), but often includes therapy and medications. Short-term hypnotics, certain antidepressants, and benzodiazepines can calm the mind and allow sleep.

Muscular Tension and Pain

The stress response causes your muscles to tense2 and prepare to fight or flee. If your anxiety often activates this response, you can experience muscle pain from the prolonged tension. This could also lead to skeletal conditions like low back pain and make pre-existing osteoarthritis more painful. Anxiety can lower your ability to tolerate pain10 and make other musculoskeletal conditions more painful as well. 

Relaxation techniques can help relieve tension and pain. Try progressive muscle relaxation, where you’ll mindfully tense and untense your muscles (head to toes, toes to head, or another pattern.) You can also apply topical remedies to relieve pain.

Respiratory System

The stress responses speeds up breathing to ensure your cardiovascular system has enough oxygen to react to threats. You may experience shortness of breath when anxiety triggers this response11 without a threat to run from or fight. Feeling like you can’t breathe or aren’t getting enough air can intensify your anxiety and create a self-feeding cycle. 

Sometimes, this can worsen to a panic attack, which may cause you to hyperventilate or hold your breath. Both of these can cause someone to pass out (or feel close to it). 

Feeling constantly short of breath or like you’re just barely getting enough air could be a sign of anxiety. Practice deep breaths, filling and expanding your stomach, and bring your concerns to your doctor.

Hormonal Imbalance

Anxiety can interfere with hormone production and release12, which can lead to thyroid problems and menstrual irregularities. This can even extend to reproductive issues. Stress and anxiety can cause endocrine disorders when they go untreated. 

Anxiety treatment can alleviate the disruptions in your endocrine system and restore it to health. Treatment options for anxiety include therapy, medications, and a combination of the two.

Seeking Professional Help

If you notice physical or emotional symptoms of anxiety, you can start your treatment journey by scheduling an appointment with your doctor. They will help you determine the cause of your symptoms and rule out other potential conditions. They may also refer you to therapy and prescribe an anxiety medication. At your appointment, you can ask questions like these to better understand your condition and treatment:

  1. Do I meet diagnostic criteria for anxiety?
  2. Should I be on medications for my symptoms? If so, what are the potential side effects?
  3. What are my next steps in treatment?
  4. Can you refer me to therapy or a different level of care?

Behavioral therapies for anxiety aim to change unhelpful thought patterns and challenge the compulsion to worry. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, invites you to notice the thoughts and emotions behind your behaviors and question their validity. Dialectical behavioral therapy encourages you to notice and accept your emotions while also aiming to adjust how you respond. 

Exposure therapies can reduce anxiety around places or situations that trigger anxiety. You may imagine the exposure or go out and experience it. For example, you may take small drives to reduce anxiety around driving, especially if you’ve been in a car accident. Your therapist will be careful to not retraumatize you or suggest anything you don’t feel able to do, but you’ll likely venture outside your comfort zone with their support.

Lifestyle Changes for Anxiety Management

Lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on your overall wellness and anxiety levels, especially when combined with professional treatment. You can try any combination or number of changes to see what works best. 

Strengthen Your Sleep Hygiene 

Good sleep can help you feel more rested and capable of handling challenges. The amount you need varies by person, but you can shoot for 6-8 hours. Set up a nighttime and morning routine to align your circadian rhythm and ease anxiety about falling asleep and waking up. 

Set Boundaries at Home and at Work

Setting emotional boundaries can shield you from additional stress and anxiety. For example, if interactions with a family member cause you anxiety, set a boundary. You could do this by limiting the time you spend with them, how often you text them back, and by what information you share with them. You can verbalize your boundary or let your actions express it.

At work, you can clearly communicate your working hours and set an expectation to work within them closely. Creating a healthy work-life balance can lower anxiety and give you more time to pursue activities you enjoy. 

Eat Well

Healthy eating allows you to function at your full capacity, which can help you manage stress and anxiety. Prioritize whole foods with nutrients and vitamins. As much as you can, avoid processed foods, fast food, and sugar. Sugar rushes can feel like panic attacks13, so limit how much you have. Similarly, excess caffeine can cause a spike in adrenaline, heart rate, and make you feel panicky.  

Make sure you’re drinking enough water, too. Dehydration can sometimes cause or mimic anxiety symptoms13; sip on water throughout the day and shoot to drink an ounce for every 2 pounds of your body weight. Someone who weighs 150 lbs would drink 75 ounces of water following that suggestion.


Exercise can help relieve stress and make you feel good (thanks to endorphins). Gentle and intense exercise offers these benefits. You could go on walks, try yoga, or weightlift. Align your exercise with your lifestyle and ensure it’s something you enjoy.


Meditation can reduce anxiety symptoms14. Many phone apps offer free guided meditation sessions you can attend anytime. You can also meditate with binaural beats, other music you like, or no music at all. 

Meditation can help align your mind and body in a state of calmness. It’s often described as a spiritual experience; you could also use prayer as a form of meditation.

Resources and Hope for Healing

Anxiety has multiple effects on the body and multiple avenues for recovery. Talk with your doctor or mental health provider today to assess your symptoms and seek treatment. 
You can also browse Recovery.com to find treatment centers for anxiety with photos, reviews, pricing information, and more.

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