From muscle aches to nausea to chills, anxiety can sometimes feel like you’re fighting a cold or flu.
Anxiety is a tricky foe, mainly because it can be so challenging to identify. You may feel irritable, tired, restless, and simply out of balance, according to David Merrill, M.D., Ph.D., psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
To make things even more confusing, physical symptoms usually pop up in addition to emotional ones—and often, until you get a proper diagnosis, it may feel like you’re fighting a cold, flu, allergies, or even a hangover.
That’s because the brain-body connection is very strong, and what might seem like unrelated mental and physical conditions could actually be intricately linked in an ongoing cycle, Dr. Merrill says. For example, anxiety could cause digestive problems, and those effects could, in turn, worsen your anxiety.
That notches both problems up unless the issue is recognized and addressed. Here, some clues that your body is manifesting anxiety in physical ways—and what you can do to feel better ASAP.
1. Rapid heart rate
Anxiety is part of the body’s built-in alarm system, alerting us to danger in the surrounding environment, according to Joseph Laino, Psy.D., senior psychologist and assistant director for clinical services for ambulatory behavioral health at the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone Health.
A part of the brain called the amygdala rings that alarm during a perceived threat and it causes a cascade of effects—such as a surge of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline—meant to prep us to flee or fight.
That can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, and even lead to heart palpitations, Dr. Laino says. “That reaction is essential to our health and preservation, because a surge of anxiety can propel us to move quickly,” he explains. But when that alarm button seems stuck in the “on” position, it can exacerbate these reactions, which are designed to be temporary.
2. Chills or sweating
As part of the fight-or-flight response, you may experience a sudden temperature change, Dr. Merrill says. That’s because another part of the brain involved in anxiety is the hypothalamus, which regulates body heat.
Because of that, you could have chills, feel drenched in sweat, or weirdly, both at the same time. That effect could also come from the way muscles fire up during an anxiety response, he adds, as one more way to get you ready to take on threats. That’s why you may have odd muscle aches in conjunction with the hot or cold flashes.
3. Shortness of breath
Your heart and lungs work in concert to keep you going strong, so when one is affected, the other is likely to be, too. If you’re experiencing a sudden rise in heart rate, that could lower your oxygen intake and your lungs see that as a tip-off to power up, so they start working harder, Dr. Merrill says.
“This is why, in extreme anxiety—like a panic attack—you’ll not only have a rapid heart rate, but also shortness of breath, and the advice with those is to try and implement deep breathing so that both can get corrected,” he says.
Of course, if you’re having chest pains, the symptoms don’t subside, or it feels worse after a few minutes, seek immediate medical attention.
4. Nausea or indigestion
In addition to the parts of the brain, and certain hormones, being associated with anxiety, the central nervous system plays a major role in the stress response as well, and Dr. Merrill notes that there are more nerve fibers in the gut than anywhere else in the body. That’s why, when you feel excited, you have those butterflies—it’s your nervous system responding to stimulus.
Another hormone, serotonin, steps in here as well, he adds. Most of your serotonin—the “happy chemical” that send signals between nerve cells—is in your gut as well, and when emotional distress happens, it can throw off your nerve signaling and serotonin response. The result? Belly problems. “Any kind of emotional imbalance like anxiety is likely to create stomach issues, such as nausea, indigestion, and upset stomach,” he says.
5. Constipation or diarrhea
As the body prepares to respond to a threat, it shuttles resources like blood flow to what it considers necessary for short-term mobilization. What’s not needed when you’re in the middle of a fight or you’re sprinting away from danger? Digestion.
“As your blood flows toward muscles, vision, and hearing to react to threats, your motility can change,” says Dr. Merrill. That often results in constipation but can also swing in the other direction toward diarrhea. In some cases, you may toggle between the two. Related effects can include bloating, excessive gas, abdominal pain, and cramping.
6. Tingling, sharp pains, and tightness
Because the central nervous system is connected to the peripheral nervous system, that means you’re wired from head to toe, Dr. Merrill says, and when there’s anxiety in the brain, it sends out signals all along those connections. Much like your muscles, heart, and lungs are prepped for a threat, your nerves fire up to ensure the rest of your body is ready to jump or punch, too.
“Because your nerves are activated, that can create an effect anywhere along those nerve systems,” says Dr. Merrill. “You may have tingling fingers or toes, for example, or the hairs on your arms stand up like you’re scared.”
If a nerve fires suddenly, there could be sharp pain or tightness as well—especially in areas where the nerves are in tighter clusters, like your lower back, jaw, or neck.
How to deal with your anxiety symptoms
Right now, with stay-at-home orders and extreme economic uncertainty part of the “new normal,” anxiety levels are very high, even for those who haven’t experienced much anxiety in the past, Dr. Merrill says.
Mindfulness-based practices can help, especially if they involve some type of physical movement that benefits both body and mind. He suggests yoga or tai chi, for example, because they incorporate breath-work in their practices.
In terms of treatment, Dr. Laino suggests talking with your healthcare provider about both your symptoms and anxiety as a possible cause to ensure you’re getting an accurate diagnosis from a trained professional. Even if you’re under a stay-at-home order, there are many telehealth options right now, he adds, which means you can have an appointment and even get a prescription without going into an office.
Most of all, take it seriously. “Just because a symptom is linked to anxiety doesn’t mean it should be ignored,” he says “There are various medications and talk therapies that can help people who suffer with acute, chronic, or post-traumatic anxieties.”
Best of all, as your anxiety knots get loosened, it’s likely many of your physical issues will start to ease as well.