Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

How to cope with anxiety’s physical symptoms

by Vivian Nunez

You’re not imagining that tension in your shoulders.

It isn’t just your mind that reacts to anxiety; your body does too. 

Have you ever noticed that when you’re anxious, your shoulders are permanently resting by your ears? Or maybe your jaw feels tight because of how much time you’ve spent clenching it? 

Those (and others) could be signs that your body is reacting to anxiety. When you’re anxious, your body shifts into fight-or-flight mode, which can kick in varied symptoms. For instance, you may struggle with shortness of breath, nausea, or even tension headaches. 

According to the American Psychological Association, your body’s impulse to tense when anxious or stressed is a reflex. To help ease some of the tension, you may need to turn to relaxation techniques, depending on the duration or severity of your anxiety. 

How do I know if anxiety is impacting my body? 

The first step to figuring out how your anxiety is impacting your body is to understand better how your anxiety shows up in the first place. Anxiety is often used as a catch-all phrase for persistent worry, tension, or the physical symptoms that present. There are a handful of anxiety disorders and symptoms associated with each. 

We have a full breakdown of some of the most common anxiety disorders here, but as a primer — GAD stands for General Anxiety Disorder which impacts 6.8 million American adults, and then other disorders like social anxiety, phobias, and panic order, impact adults at varying degrees. 

Noticing your habits, symptoms, or triggers can help you better place the kind of anxiety you’re living with and then lead to figuring out how to best cope with the symptoms. 

Will my body react the same way to all kinds of anxiety? 

A person’s anxiety manifests differently depending on the circumstances, triggers, or disorder. 

For instance, those who experience panic attacks can feel like they are having a heart attack, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. The American Psychological Association writes that in some cases, extreme anxiety can lead to shortness of breath, which can even trigger asthma attacks.

But not everyone will feel that level of physical manifestation every time they experience anxiety. The varying symptoms or physical reactions don’t mean that your anxiety is any less real. For some people, anxiety’s physical symptoms may present daily in more hidden ways.

According to the APA: “Stress can affect this brain-gut communication and may trigger pain, bloating, and other gut discomfort to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria which can influence its health and the brain’s health, which can impact the ability to think and affect emotions.” 

Stress also prepares our body for a “fight” or “flight” by diverting blood away from the gut into the muscles, slowing the digestive process to a crawl, and sometimes even reversing it (aka vomiting). Between the digestive processes slowing and the brain-gut connection, stress commonly leads to physical symptoms like stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, or nausea. 

Another physical symptom many people with anxiety deal with is the feeling of having a lump stuck in their throat. This feeling or experience actually has a name — globus sensation. Studies have shown a connection between that lump in your throat and a noticeable level of anxiety, so it definitely is not all in your head. 

What are some easy ways to help ease your body when you’re anxious? 

It isn’t helpful to pretend that the physical symptoms will go away on their own. Instead, the goal should be to learn how to manage symptoms when they surface. 

According to the CDC, it’s helpful to harness a mental health toolkit when trying to cope with your anxiety. You can lean on multiple tools, so you’re never left wondering how to seek support.

In Calm Health's programs, we offer practices that use the power of breathing, visualization, and journaling exercises. 

For instance, during a visualization exercise, Dr. Julie Smith encourages listeners to think about their happy place and, when there, offers a step-by-step guide to relieve tension from your body. The goal of learning the exercise is to be able to turn to it any time the tension piles up or your anxiety feels overwhelming. Studies have shown that visualization and progressive muscle relaxation techniques can positively impact stress and anxiety. 

Your physical and mental health are connected. Often we think of anxiety as something experienced only in the mind, but there’s more to how anxiety manifests and more to how anyone can learn to cope.

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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Our programs are created by licensed psychologists, and you can explore them at your own pace, in any order you like.

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