We may think we know what anxiety looks like (shaking hands, shallow breaths) and what it sounds like (“I can’t do this. What if I can’t do it. What if?…What if?…), but what does anxiety feel like? Often, we focus so much on the racing thoughts and emotions that come with anxiety, we forget to recognize how physical anxiety can be. In fact, you can feel physical effects of anxiety without even realizing it’s anxiety that’s causing it.
To learn some of the ways anxiety not only affects your mind — but your body — we asked people in our mental health community to describe what physical symptoms of anxiety they deal with, and what they feel like.
Here’s what they shared with us:
1. “When I get into high anxiety, sometimes out of nowhere, I get GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms. Constantly going to the bathroom. I have cramps and abdominal pain. It’s tough because there is nothing I can do but just try to wait it out.” — Michele P.
2. “Does anyone else find themselves antsy after a big panic attack where you can barely sit still and then for the next couple days, you’re completely mentally/physically exhausted? I feel like everything is just too much and I can’t move.” — Kristen G.
3. “It starts with my heart racing… so fast I can hardly breathe. Then the nausea. It is unrelenting. The nausea makes my anxiety worse which makes my heart race, which makes me more nauseous. It’s all a vicious cycle, and it is so hard to escape.”2 — Rachael J.
4. “In the aftermath of a panic attack, I often feel bone-chillingly cold. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, and no jacket or blanket helps. I just have to ride it out until it goes away.” — Monica M.
5. “My back is in tremendous pain, and every time I have attacks, I suddenly feel my back harden and new knots appear. I have been trying to go to massage therapy and other treatments, but nothing really seems to work.” — Alexandra C.
6. “Heart palpitations. Every night for over a year my heart wouldn’t let me sleep. As soon as I lay down and my body was relaxed, my heart would start pounding hard enough to shake my whole body. I was convinced I had a horrible fatal heart condition, but after a few tests, my doctor told me it was only a symptom of my anxiety disorder.” — Heather D.
7. “I start itching, picking at my scalp or under my finger nails. I sometimes look pale (more so than normal, that is) and seem slightly dazed. Of course nausea and sweating, as well. Sometimes it also feels like my tongue is swollen and I can barely speak.” — Alexa K.
8. “When my anxiety is triggered, my diaphragm turns to iron — I can’t relax it to take deep breaths, and sometimes I can’t even breathe at all. I end up taking shallow breaths and unconsciously holding them for as long as I can.” — Amber W.
9. “Sometimes, when under an extreme amount of stress/anxiety I get physically sick because my body is overdosing me with adrenaline. It’s happened in public a few times for me, and it’s humiliating. I heard someone call me a ‘hungover wreck’ before when actually I was just severely over-stressed.” — Conor L.
10. “I have constant heart palpitations. My resting heart rate is always in the 90s because I’m on constant high alert, even if I’m laying in bed. Then there’s the stomach aches, the headaches, constant muscle tension. Any wrong movement, I pull a muscle in my neck or back.” — Amber B.
11. “Chest pains that feel like I’m having a heart attack. My anxiety causes so much pain throughout my body, people think I constantly have the flu. I can’t believe how speechless I get and start mumbling. What surprises me is how much ice cream and a cold compress helps; it slows down my heart rate and calms me down.” — Christina P/
12. “Tense muscles in the back of my neck, stomach issues and feeling nauseous a lot, gritting my teeth subconsciously, feeling ‘heavy’ and tired, my heart beats fast and I partially dissociate when I’m extremely nervous. Also, I feel very shaky whenever I’m worked up, and I feel as if I can’t see straight (probably sensory overload).” — Elizabeth E.
13. “When I begin having an attack I get light headed and dizzy. I almost pass out. My breathing increases and my heart rate jumps up. It sucks. A lot. Especially when I’m in like the grocery store.” — Hannah Y.
14. “Depends on the type of anxiety for me. Usually starts with my body temperature rising, then I start to sweat. Heart starts beating faster and harder. It’s just racing,feels like it’s going to alien out of chest. My vision starts to get blurry. Turns into tunnel vision. Sounds all around me seem to be swallowing me up. I can’t focus on anything, especially my own thoughts. My hands start to shake and I want to scream at everyone.” — Kit K.
15. “Getting extremely hyper while having muscle spasms and joint pain. Then getting hit with a migraine and it’s hard to hear anything over my heartbeat, then finally getting cardiac symptoms(crushing feeling on my chest, inability to breath properly, arms going numb) that make everyone around me think I’m having a heart attack. Also major jaw pain due to clenching the majority of the time and grinding my teeth in my sleep.” — Cait L.
16. “Apart from the elevating heartbeat and the sick feeling in my stomach, I stammer. I am no longer in control of my speech pattern, I speak so fast I can’t catch my breath, my tongue somehow feels like it’s being twisted. What comes out of my mouth during anxiety is mostly a combination of gibberish and unintelligible sounds.” — Phượng N.
17. “My voice goes very raspy and strained… It’s a very odd symptom but happens nearly every single time I leave the house or talk to people on the phone, etc.” — Sarah G.
18. “Horrible and very vivid nightmares. Once my anxiety was under control I finally stopped having them. Plus nail biting, scalp picking, twitches, shaking, not being able to breathe, etc. It’s hell.” — Emily B.
19. “Dizziness, nausea, headaches, racing heart, upset stomach but recently I’ve noticed when I’m in full blown panic mode my gums bleed…very recent new symptom to add to the really crappy list…” — Claire A.
20. “My boyfriend and I both have anxiety (him newly diagnosed and I’ve had it for my whole life), and when I get really anxious and hot my whole body breaks out in a red and incredibly itchy/painful rash that can only be remedied by trying to cool myself down and wait it out. He on the other hand gets these patches of what looks like dragon skin when he has high anxiety that he says is very itchy.” — Malia R.
21. “Full-body rage. High blood pressure followed by a sense of being completely drained. The feeling that your body is going to explode from inside out. And the feeling of hopelessness from not being able to ‘check’ myself/yourself.” — Courtney B.
22. “Back pain, I tense my back without realizing I’m doing it and I can’t stop it when I start cause I don’t know how I do it in the first place. The pains there ’til the anxiety has subsided.” — Samantha S.
23. “I shut down. I can’t think. I forget where I’m going or what I’m doing. I just fall asleep. I had myself tested for narcolepsy simply because I wasn’t putting anxiety and my sudden urge to sleep together.” — Candice L.
24. “Nausea, uncontrollable shaking, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, hot/cold flashes, muscle tension, jaw clenching, and I startle very easy. These symptoms, combined with an onslaught of detrimental thoughts, create a perpetual cycle of uselessness, fear and panic. It’s exhausting.” — Persephone A.
This story was published on The Mighty, a platform for people facing health challenges to share their stories and connect.