Anxiety Is Physical Too
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
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
3. Shortness of breath
5. Muscle tension
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. A lot of our
daily activities are automatic or habit. Driving a car, tasks at work, and more are often
automatic and allow our brains time to wander. When your brain begins to wander,
recognize it, don’t judge yourself and enmesh yourself in the activity. Describe using
your 5 senses (i.e., touch, taste, smell, hear, see) what you’re doing, and fully enmesh
yourself in the activity. Then focus on how you’re doing it. Focus on one thing at a time
as multitasking requires our focus to jump from task to task and makes it difficult to
stay present in the moment, and remain non-judgmental. When a judgment arrives,
identify it, and try to describe what you’re doing without any judgment both positive
or negative (e.g., ‘I’m driving too slow’ instead say ‘my foots on the gas and moving me
closer to my destination.’)
2. Challenge Negative Thinking - Anxiety often results in us catastrophizing a
situation and 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. Don’t resist reality, instead do
something to cope with the moment. Do yoga, journal, exercise, color, watch TV, read
a book, etc.
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 microsoft word or notes and delete it later.
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.