What anxiety does to your body

August 20, 2022

Anxiety is a complex and overwhelming combination of negative emotions that can also have physical symptoms. Here’s what anxiety does to your body.

For those who experience anxiety, the intensity of these feelings can be difficult or even impossible to shake, alleviate or distract from. Anxiety can make you feel significant distress, working and carrying out daily tasks can become difficult and even your eating and sleeping patterns can become disrupted.

There are also some physical symptoms that may indicate you are experiencing anxiety, including chest pain or tightness, dizziness, changes to your blood pressure, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhoea and headaches. To better understand how anxiety makes you feel, South Pacific Private Psychiatrist, Dr Ashwini Padhi, answers some of the most commonly asked questions about anxiety and the physical symptoms you may experience.

Can anxiety cause chest pain?

Anxiety can cause unexplained pains in different parts of the body. Tightness or pain in the chest can be one of the most frightening symptoms of anxiety, with many people wondering whether they may be experiencing a heart attack. This fear often perpetuates anxiety even further. Dr Padhi says while the symptoms can be similar, there may be some notable differences. “With a heart attack, the pain is often very specific” says Dr Padhi. “It can be constricted, severe in nature and can radiate to other parts of the body. Anxiety, on the other hand, can mimic chest pain or heart attack symptoms very closely. A panic or anxiety attack is often accompanied by shortness of breath, increased heart rate and difficulty breathing”. Dr Padhi recommends that if you are unsure about any unexplained pain, you should always contact your doctor or specialist straight away to rule out any other health conditions.

Can anxiety cause dizziness?

Dizziness can be described as feeling light-headed or a sense of vertigo, and is a common symptom of anxiety. This is because we’re in a typical stress response state of fight, flight, fawn or freeze, it’s common for our breathing to become short, sharp and rapid, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. Feeling dizzy can be a physical response to a surge of adrenaline which is another way the body responds to stress. “Dizziness, fainting spells and impaired balance are all symptoms of anxiety” says Dr Padhi. “However, these may also be signs that you may have an underlying condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes, so it’s important to ensure that your physical health is checked if you are experiencing symptoms such as these.”

Can anxiety cause high blood pressure?

Although anxiety doesn’t directly cause long-term high blood pressure, there are some known links. Those who are stressed may be more likely to engage in behaviours that impact blood pressure, such as smoking, drinking or disordered eating. “Stress and anxiety have an impact on blood pressure,” says Dr Padhi, “and there can be multiple ways in which blood pressure is increased through anxiety. This includes adapted behaviours we engage in in order to cope with increased stress.” Stress can also cause blood pressure to spike for short periods of time. Whilst this won’t cause long-term increased blood pressure, prolonged spikes such as this can eventually begin to damage vital organs and blood vessels. There are also some medications prescribed for anxiety or other mood disorders that can increase blood pressure.

Can anxiety make you feel sick?

Feeling sick is one of the more unpleasant symptoms of anxiety. Many people experience nausea when their body is responding to stress. It’s thought that this comes down to the connection between the brain and the gut. Neurotransmitters from the brain can interfere with the natural balance of the gut, causing strong feelings of nausea when under stress. Dr Padhi says that there is evidence that increased anxiety and stress can trigger increased secretion of acid in the stomach, which is typically used for digestion, and notes “the impact on our stomach and gut from an increase in digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid can be nausea and vomiting.”

Can anxiety cause stomach pain?

Like nausea, stomach pain is one of the more physically uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety. Again, the connection between the brain and the gut is the culprit. Signals from the brain can cause tension in the abdomen and can disrupt our good gut bacteria, resulting in changes to our gastrointestinal function. “It’s important to remember that while anxiety can cause many unexplained pains in the body, there may be other reasons you are experiencing stomach pain, so always seek professional advice if you are unsure” says Dr Padhi.

Can anxiety cause diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea can act as both a symptom and a cause of anxiety. The connection between brain and gut can cause bouts of diarrhoea, and conversely, bouts of diarrhoea can cause increased anxiety for people who worry they may lose control of their bowels in public. This can be a difficult cycle to break free of. Research also shows that people with anxiety and depression are more likely to suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Can anxiety cause headaches?

“Anxiety can cause headaches, in particular, tension headaches” says Dr Padhi. “This is similar to other kinds of headaches except the pain will be felt all around the head, and feels like a constricting type of pain.” While there is a clear link between anxiety and tension headaches, research is still being done to discover the physiological cause. There are also some behavioural aspects of anxiety that may contribute to developing tension headaches, such as lack of sleep, clenching your jaw or teeth, consuming too much alcohol or caffeine and overusing screens. “When it comes to anxiety, a tension headache can be both a physiological response and a secondary response caused by adapted behaviour,” says Dr Padhi.

When anxiety becomes a problem

At South Pacific Private, we recognise that anxiety can be debilitating, which is why it’s important to seek professional help to end the cycle. Please contact your healthcare professional if any of the above physical symptoms of anxiety persist, to rule out any other underlying conditions that may be causing them.

You can also take a free self-assessment for anxiety online or you can call our caring Intake Team to discuss what treatment options are available for you on 1800 063 332.

Online Self Assessments

Learn more about key indicators of addiction, trauma and mental health conditions by taking an assessment for yourself, or on behalf of a loved-one.

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