Can Anxiety Cause Physical Symptoms?
Many people who I have worked with in therapy are so surprised to realise just how many physical symptoms are caused by anxiety. They often attend their GP surgery to discuss their physical symptoms with a Healthcare Professional because they are concerned about them or the symptoms are affecting the way they live their lives.
A common example I see in clinical practice is people seeking medical advice for neck and shoulder tension/pain, which can be a result of being overly stressed and tensing your neck and shoulder muscles without even realising it. Have you ever been doing something and you realise your shoulders are raised higher than they ought to be? If you find yourself doing this a lot, then it makes sense why you may be experiencing muscle pain or discomfort because our bodies aren't designed to be tense for prolonged periods of time. Going to a GP or a specialist may indeed help with pain management, but the underlying cause needs to be addressed as well (the stress/anxiety which is leading you to tense your muscles in the first place).
What Happens in the Body When You Are Anxious?
When we are anxious, our fight or flight system is activated, and Adrenalin is released into the bloodstream. This Adrenalin causes an abundance of physical symptoms with the intention of helping us either fight the threat or run away from it. Shaking, sweating, headaches, neck/shoulder pain, nausea, dizziness, breathing changes, palpitations, butterflies in your tummy, pins and needles, the urge to go to the toilet, and so on, are all symptoms that can be caused by anxiety.
Since anxiety can manifest in a physical way, it can sometimes be hard to work out whether they are because of anxiety or something else (like a physical health condition). A good way to try and work this out is to complete a diary of when you feel the physical symptom(s) and to record what you were thinking about at the time. In CBT, we know that our feelings and physical symptoms are linked to our thoughts.
If you experience any physical symptoms that could be related to anxiety and you aren't sure what is causing them, you could try and identify what you were thinking about in the moment you noticed the symptoms start. This can help you determine whether the physical changes may be related to how you were thinking, for example if you were worried about something around the time you noticed the symptoms, rather than them being brought on by a physical cause.
Typical Anxious Thoughts
Thoughts such as “how will I afford Christmas this year,” and, “will I be made redundant,” can lead us to feel worried or anxious and as a result, you may notice an increase in physical symptoms such as nausea, butterflies in your tummy or a tension headache.
Another way to try and work out whether your physical symptoms are anxiety related is to notice if they are there when you do not feel anxious or worried. If at this point, the symptoms are not there, but are there when you are thinking in an anxious way, it may be likely that the symptoms are linked to anxiety.
They say knowledge is power, and that is true with CBT. The more you can get in tune with your thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms, and your responses to them, the more you can identify patterns which may be negatively affecting your lives. When you are more aware of them, it can give you an idea of what you can try and work on to try and relax and gain a sense of calmness.
One of my favourite ways to switch off from the busyness of life is using mindfulness. It helps me to focus my attention, it helps me relax, and I always finish it feeling calmer in my mind and body. Stress can lead to muscle tension, and the opposite of tension is relaxation. So, if you aren't doing any activities to relax your body and mind, no wonder you may be feeling more anxious and experiencing physical symptoms that are associated with it!
Do you experience any physical symptoms regularly that you are not sure why they are there? Could they be caused by anxiety? If you would like me to send you a worry diary to start using, send me an email and I'll happily ping one over to you. My email address is email@example.com