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What Anxiety Does to Your Body: 7 Common Physical Symptoms

While conversations on anxiety tend to revolve around how a person feels mentally and emotionally, it’s important to consider the physical symptoms, too. For a lot of women struggling with anxiety, it’s not always clear how to make the connection between how they are feeling physically and their emotional state.

To begin to understand the physical symptoms of anxiety, it’s important to remember how anxiety triggers the physical “fight or flight” response. While a helpful tool when facing a real physical threat, your brain doesn’t distinguish between that and anxiety, which is often caused by fear and worry. Because your brain is wired to respond to any perceived threat by kicking on your sympathetic nervous system, when you feel anxious a lot of involuntary responses start to happen, like increased breathing and a more rapid release of hormones into your bloodstream.

How your body physically responds to anxiety is unique, but there are seven common physical symptoms that you should be aware of. When you understand what your body does when it’s stressed, you can start to connect the dots between your anxiety and your physical body.

  1. Racing heart. When your brain receives stress signals, it triggers your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol. As these hormones are released, your heart responds by speeding up your heartbeat, which explains your racing heart.
  2. Shortness of breath. When your body is stressed, it responds by providing you with more oxygen so that your body can receive more blood. This increase in oxygen can actually start to do the opposite of what you might expect, causing you to breathe rapidly and even hyperventilate.
  3. Chronic exhaustion. Because your body produces stress hormones when you’re anxious, your body ends up staying in a constant state of high alert. To keep your body operating at this high-stress level is draining – and makes you feel exhausted more often than not.
  4. Poor sleep. Whether you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or just wake up feeling anything but rested, anxiety plays a big role in the quality of sleep you get on a regular basis. One explanation for this is the fact that you can’t stop your thoughts from racing when you’re feeling anxious, which can get in the way of a good’s night sleep. Another explanation is that those stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) keep your body from resting.
  5. Achy muscles. The fight or flight stress response causes your muscles to tense up and, when you’re in a constant state of stress and anxiety, it doesn’t give them an opportunity to relax. As you can imagine, chronic tension in your muscles leads to persistent discomfort.
  6. Stomach discomfort. Anxiety is directly linked to your GI system. The more anxious you feel, the more likely you’ll experience pains in your stomach, constipation, diarrhea and other GI issues.
  7. Poor immunity. If you find yourself catching a lot of colds or coming down with a virus more often than you used to, there’s a good chance it can be attributed to your levels of anxiety. Because it’s difficult for your body to function when it’s constantly in the fight or flight response, your immune system suffers.

Finding ways to manage and reduce your anxiety will improve how you feel, physically and emotionally. By connecting your physical symptoms to your anxiety, you can better understand the toll it’s taking on your body – and find the motivation you need to make healthy changes to your current lifestyle.

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