Anxiety Is Physical Too

Anxiety is not only frequent worrying, feelings of nervousness, rumination over daily events. It is not only in our head, it is also in our bodies. It manifests in ways we may not be fully aware of. Oftentimes it presents itself as physical symptoms.

In order to understand the connection between our anxiety and physical symptoms, it’s helpful to learn what anxiety is. Anxiety is our “fight or flight” response. It is the stress hormone, referred to as cortisol which releases adrenaline. For someone who feels anxious more often than not, they’re living in a constant state of “fight or flight.” Cortisol is constantly being released in their body. Exhausting right? Let’s say we’re about to be attacked by a bear, our bodies would enter fight or flight mode as a survival technique. Our minds begin to race in order to identify and protect ourselves from the danger. The same thing happens with anxiety. As we begin to worry and ruminate about that weird birthmark on our body, or harp on something we said in a social setting, or catastrophizing what will happen if we fail that exam or don’t get that job. Cortisol is constantly being released even if there is no pending danger.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety:

1. Stomach pain

2. Insomnia

3. Shortness of breath

4. Sweating

5. Muscle tension

6. Nausea

7. Fatigue

8. Racing heart

9. Shaky hands

10. Jaw clenching

How do we cope when our survival mechanism is overactive? Below is a list of coping mechanisms to better manage anxiety and enhance your life.

1. Mindfulness – With anxiety, we’re often living in the past and the future. Mindfulness is focused on remaining present in each given moment. Many people associate mindfulness with meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises and more, which are great exercises for reducing anxiety. However, mindfulness can also be used in everyday activities, from work, school, driving, social events, and more.

2. Challenge Negative Thinking – Anxiety often results in us catastrophizing a situation and engaging in negative thinking. With each negative thought find the evidence to prove it’s false. “I’m not smart enough to go to college.” Challenge it with evidence – “I have a 90 average”, or “I tutor younger kids.” There is often evidence in our life to dispute our negative thoughts and beliefs.

3. Acceptance and Control – This is one of the harder skills to use. Lack of control over a situation can be extremely anxiety provoking as we often want to fix the situation. First, check the facts of the situation and remove anything that may be an assumption. Focus on the facts and not your emotions at this time. If the facts are true and not clouded by our emotions, then ask yourself can anything be done to change or improve the situation? If not, focus on acceptance and using a coping skills to manage your emotions in the moment.

4. Distract – When ruminating it can be helpful to distract ourselves. Our brain can only focus on one thing at a time. If we focus our energy on something else we can alleviate our anxiety. There’s hundred of distraction techniques ranging from low effort (i.e., watching TV, play a board/card game, dance, watch tik tok videos, etc.), to medium effort (i.e., do a puzzle, read a book, take a bath, bullet journal, etc.), to high effort (i.e., cook an elaborate meal, volunteer in your community, play a sport, garden, etc.). Anything that would distract you from your internal dialogue and focus your energy on something else.

5. Speak it – Sometimes we all just need a safe space to say how we feel. If you don’t have a therapist, is there a family member or a friend you can speak to that will give you the space to just vent. Let them know, you just want them to listen, you don’t want them to try and fix the situation. You can journal your feelings in a book, or if you don’t want a record of it, type it out in a word document or in your notes and delete it after.

6. Deep Breathing or Intensive Exercise – If your anxiety is too overwhelming, unbearable, or you’re already in a state of panic, stop what you’re doing. Jump in a cold shower or splash cold water on your face. Run as fast and as far as you can, do as many push-ups or jumping jacks as fast as you can. These techniques will physically force our heart to calm down if your emotions have become too overwhelming.

7. Compassion and Patience – This sounds too easy but it’s important to be patient with yourself. Your feelings are valid and real. Our reactions may not always be appropriate. Despite an inappropriate reaction, the feeling is still valid. Apologize for the inappropriate reaction, don’t apologize for the feeling. Ask yourself what would I say to a friend going through this, and then show yourself that same compassion. Emotions are fleeting. They’re like a train passing by, it will come and it will go. Bad emotions are fleeting just like good ones. Be patient with yourself and show yourself compassion as it will pass.

Importantly, remember anxiety is hormonal and physical too, it’s not all in your head.