19 Physical Tolls You Didn’t Realize Anxiety Can Take On Your Body

“Most people live with a mental health disorder for so long it becomes normalized.”

Every day we learn more about the mind-body connection, and the physical manifestations of mental illnesses like anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, and although they are treatable, only 36.9% of those with anxiety receive treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Without treatment, anxiety can present itself in unusual ways in the body.

"Most people live with a mental health disorder for so long it becomes normalized to them. We tend to think of anxiety only as anxiety attacks and symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, but not how it has been manifesting before that,” Brandie Carlos, founder of Therapy for Latinx, tells Bustle.

"People that have chronic anxiety, that can’t figure out how to manage over a long period of time, can start to have somatic symptoms," Danielle Forshee, Psy.D., tells Bustle. "What that means is that, they’re starting to have physical manifestations of the anxiety. Their body is so stressed all the time, because of all the stress hormones that their brain is releasing from being anxious all the time, that their body starts to have negative effects."

When you’re anxious, your brain and body release a flood of stress hormones to help you deal with the threat. "We are not meant to be in this charged state for extended periods of time, but chronic uncontrolled anxiety will elevate our stress hormones and cause significant strain to our body, resulting in physical consequences," Dr. Michael Richardson, M.D., a medical provider at OneMedical, tells Bustle.

These stress hormones cause negative physical effects. Here are 19 less obvious physical effects of anxiety.

"Some people have a heightened sensitivity to [stress hormones]," Dr. Julia Blank M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Medical Center, tells Bustle. And that’s why some people with anxiety can feel like they burnt their mouth on something hot. Burning mouth syndrome is a somatic condition that can be worsened by stress. It occurs in about 4% of the population, and is most common in women over 60, according to the National Institutes of Health, Although there is not a lot of information about this condition, many believe there is a connection with the brain and stress hormones, though it’s not clear what the link is.

Hearing a ringing in your ears is known as tinnitus. A study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease & Treatment in 2015 found that people with chronic tinnitus were very likely to experience anxiety. The condition can show up as feeling like your ears are plugged, where sounds are muted.

They say yawning is contagious, but if you find yourself yawning all the time, it may be a sign of underlying anxiety. "Fatigue can be a pervasive anxiety symptom, as managing chronic stress and tension is exhausting," Dr. Richardson says. But yawning is also a problem on its own. People may find themselves yawning uncontrollably before and after anxious episodes, or randomly. This is because yawning is one of the body’s responses to stress.

"Physical responses to anxiety can be highly noticeable, but they can also be more subtle, like neck tension," Dr. Richardson says. Muscle tension from clenching your body in panic can cause pain and ongoing aches, even if they don’t seem related to your mental state at all. The ADAA says that chronic pain can be a common symptom of severe stress, and Harvard Health points out that there are links between chronic conditions like fibromyalgia and anxiety, likely because of nerve issues researchers don’t yet understand.

Research shows that people with anxiety tend to get cold feet, literally. When your body activates its stress response, it also often slows the blood flow to your feet and hands, which can make them feel cold, even numb or tingly, Dr. Richardson says. "When we’re anxious, blood is shunted from nonessential areas such as the stomach and intestines to parts of the body that will increase our chances of survival," he says. Your toes might feel the effects as a result.

"When something stressful happens, we feel anxious and our body responds as if we’re in a life or death situation," Elizabeth Cush L.C.P.C tells Bustle. "For many people it’s the physical symptoms that feel most present when anxiety shows up. Tingling in the arms and/or legs is a physical symptom you might not recognize as anxiety."

Forshee says mental health conditions can cause some patients to lose their voice. The stress can cause your throat muscles and vocal chords to tighten, according to the University of Pittsburgh Department of Otolaryngology. The stress from anxiety is also shown to cause voice cracks, shakiness, and hoarseness.

If you feel you have a low pain tolerance, your mental health may be the source. Research on pain has shown that pain has both physical and mental components, and anxiety can make people extra sensitive to pain.

"Anxiety can make you focus more on pain sensations, which can magnify the experience," Sarah Gray, Psy.D., clinical health psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, tells Bustle. "If you are anxious and scanning your body for signs that something is wrong or interpreting physical sensations as harm being done to the body, then this can cause you to interpret normal or mildly uncomfortable sensations as a threat […] Anxiety on a consistent basis can also set off your ‘flight or flight’ response in this way, again making your brain more sensitive to any perception of threat, and amplifying the experience of pain."

Various skin flare-ups can also be caused by the stress hormones your body is producing. The National Eczema Foundation notes that there’s a strong link between peaks in anxiety and eczema breakouts, and other skin issues can appear when you’re anxious as well, including itches, rashes, and bumps. One study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology in 2017 found a strong correlation between high stress levels and acne in young female students, as their stress hormones altered the production of oils and sweat on their skin.

IBS affects 25 to 45 million people in the United States, and two out of three people with IBS are women, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. But we are learning more about the mind-gut connection, and many digestive symptoms may be caused by mental illnesses. "Chronic anxiety and stress have a negative effect on the body, causing people to experience gastrointestinal changes, including irritable bowel symptoms, diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain, and nausea," Dr. Blank says.

Anxious people may feel disconnected from their bodies, like they’re watching themselves from the outside. If this becomes a persistent or recurrent feeling that’s very intense, it may be depersonalization-derealization disorder. People with depersonalization-derealization may say they feel "robotic" or "numb." It’s not clear what causes depersonalization-derealization, but stress is known to trigger episodes. It’s also common to feel a sense of impending doom, Dr. Richardson says. If you experience either symptom, you should consult your doctor.

Loss of libido can be a frustrating side effect of anxiety on several levels. Anxiety can make it hard to get in the mood in the first place, and may leave you feeling preoccupied during sex. You may also feel anxious if you’re stressed about the way you look, or feel like your partner will judge you. Other side effects of serious stress, like fatigue, distraction, and generally feeling distressed, can get in the way of your libido too.

If you’re always tired in the morning, despite getting your typical shut eye, it may be a sign of anxiety. “Some physical symptoms people don’t realize are anxiety are sleeping but waking up tired or having nightmares," Carlos says. "When my patients are finally able to manage their anxiety, they are often surprised to see a boost in energy and ability to focus more," Dr. Richardson says.

Stress hormones can mess with your ability to think clearly and make decisions. "People who have generalized anxiety cannot get the racing thoughts out of their minds no matter how much they try to focus on other tasks," Forshee says. Stress hormones known as catecholamines take over your frontal cortex, which controls your judgement and organization skills, and stop it from working effectively.

People with anxiety may deal with stress-triggered hair loss, which causes your hair follicles to press pause. This can affect all parts of your body, like eyebrows and eyelashes, but also from the top of your head. Alopecia, where the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles and forces hair to fall out, is also linked to stress.

Anxious people can feel both extremes of energy, though neither is particularly constructive when it comes to addressing and managing anxiety and stress. Anxiety can make you very tired, Dr. Richardson says. In some circumstances it may also prompt a surge in energy, as your body attempts to work off the buzz of stress hormones that is prompting it to feel jittery and upset.

Dizziness is a fairly common symptom of anxiety. It may be a result of hormonal stress response, hyperventilation, or exhaustion. "Anxiety can make you feel lightheaded, weak, tremulous, tingly, or overheated," Dr. Blank says. These are all common responses to high stress, and can all cause sensations of dizziness.

Many people with anxiety complain of jaw pain, which could be caused by tightening muscles, or by unknowingly grinding your teeth at night. A study published in 2014 in Biomed Research International found that stress and anxiety were among the most common causes of teeth grinding.

The stress hormones released when one is anxious can weaken the immune system, because it overloads it. "Stress can lead to systemic inflammation, which can increase chronic pain and impair the immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to infections — from the common cold, to flu," Dr. Blank says.

Forshee says therapy is a very effective way to treat these physical symptoms because it teaches you how to manage the underlying anxiety at the root of the problem. Dr. Richardson also recommends identifying what might be driving your anxious feelings, and attempting self-care practices, like eating well and attempting to get eight hours of sleep a night.

"Rely on your primary care provider for help," Dr. Richardson adds. "They can connect you with mental health specialists, prescribe anti-anxiety medication, or be a listening ear to support you through this complicated time."


Dr Julia Blank M.D.

Brandie Carlos

Elizabeth Cush L.C.P.C.

Danielle Forshee L.L.C.

Sarah Gray Psy.D.

Dr. Michael Richardson M.D.

Studies cited:

Gül, A. I., Özkırış, M., Aydin, R., Şimşek, G., & Saydam, L. (2015). Coexistence of anxiety sensitivity and psychiatric comorbidities in patients with chronic tinnitus. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 11, 413–418. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S77786

Liu, Y. Z., Wang, Y. X., & Jiang, C. L. (2017). Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 316. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00316

Wieckiewicz, M., Paradowska-Stolarz, A., & Wieckiewicz, W. (2014). Psychosocial aspects of bruxism: the most paramount factor influencing teeth grinding. BioMed research international, 2014, 469187. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/469187

Zari, S., & Alrahmani, D. (2017). The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 10, 503–506. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S148499

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