The physical side effects of stress and anxiety couldn’t be more unwelcome as they’re typically quite unpleasant. These physical side effects just add to the often disabling mental and psychological symptoms of anxiety.
Along with the mental, psychological and emotional symptoms, physical side effects of stress and anxiety come from your nervous system. Nervous system dysregulation can cause uncomfortable physical sensations in your body or physical side effects that cause you distress. Dysregulation of the nervous system often occurs due to stress or anxiety.
Your autonomic nervous system controls processes in the body that you don’t have a conscious influence over, and this is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms. The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” half, and the parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” nervous system.
For many people, in cases of stress or anxiety, the “fight or flight” half is overactive. You may not feel like it, but this system has evolved to protect you from dangers such as a predator or impending natural disaster. What we don’t want, however, is for this to get activated even during minor stressful situations – and yet this happens to many of us.
Let’s take a look at 10 of the physical side effects of stress and anxiety, which you may experience even if you aren’t aware that you have an anxiety disorder. These physical side effects of stress and anxiety are primarily caused by the two major stress hormones released when you’re tense or anxious: adrenaline and cortisol. Below are 10 physical side effects of stress and anxiety that although are normal, will naturally feel uncomfortable:
Shallow Breathing or Shortness of Breath
Adrenaline’s effects on the heart and lungs are all about helping you run away as fast and as far as you can, or fight to the best of your ability. However, this can be disrupted in cases of extreme stress or anxiety, making it difficult for you to breathe as your body tries to force oxygen into your lungs. The initial rise in your blood levels of oxygen, and fall in carbon dioxide, can cause airway constriction during an anxiety attack.
When you’re feeling anxious, your heart beats faster as part of the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline surges and gets you ready to run away from danger, sending more blood flow and oxygen to your muscles so you can escape. It’s not a heart attack, you’re not dying – this is all part of your body trying to keep you safe.
Trembling Hands or Muscle Shakes
Why do some people have shaky hands when they’re stressed or anxious? Rapid breathing, especially when it’s not helping you run away, can throw out the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. This then disrupts the mineral balance in your muscle and nerve cells, which they use to communicate. Sometimes, this can manifest as shaking because your neurons aren’t sending coherent signals.
Tense or Tight Muscles
Tense shoulders or a sore and tight neck are common physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. Just as you can shake or tremble with anxiety, sometimes everything in your body seems to tense up. This could be from both a disruption in nerve cell communication and in electrolyte balance. If you’ve ever been involved in endurance sports, you know that you need more than just water. You need the right balance of sodium and potassium to keep your fluid balance within a safe, healthy range. When you’re out of balance, muscle cramps are often your first warning sign before things start getting out of hand.
High cortisol depletes our bodies of potassium, a relaxing electrolyte, and retains sodium, which promotes tension. Its diuretic effect may also lead to faster magnesium loss, another relaxant electrolyte that’s great for muscle cramps when you’re deficient. This is also why one of the physical side effects of anxiety is high blood pressure, as the muscles in your arteries tense up as well.
Cortisol, another key stress hormone that may be higher in cases of anxiety, affects your body’s fluid balance. At high levels, it increases sweating, also known as hyperhidrosis. It’s possible that this is related to what may have been the hormone’s original purpose, to help fish control the level of sodium in their bodies (we all evolved from fish!).
Maybe you need to run to the bathroom every time you’re anxious for another reason. Cortisol also acts as a diuretic hormone, increasing urination in the most inconvenient of situations. During the worst of the pandemic in 2020, I would wake up every night, desperate to use the bathroom, because of stress. Avoiding coffee and every type of tea that could possibly be diuretic didn’t help, it was only when life began returning to normal that I could sleep without interruption.
One of the physical side effects of stress or anxiety that many people experience is in the bowel or stomach, such as diarrhoea. Do you have a “nervous stomach”, always running to the bathroom just before you have to get involved in a stressful situation? Your brain and digestive system are constantly communicating through the rest-and-digest part of the autonomic nervous system we mentioned earlier. This goes both ways, with the intestinal microbiome “speaking” to the brain by neurotransmitter production.
On the other hand, the inflammation caused by chronic anxiety can, unfortunately, disrupt the intestinal microbiome. It shifts the population balance away from helpful, neurotransmitter-regulating species and towards harmful inflammatory bacteria. This is partly because cortisol reduces your levels of IgA antibodies, which protect your intestinal lining against infection and other damaging factors.
Both diarrhoea and constipation can be the main symptom of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a functional disorder often worsened by stress and anxiety. Chronic anxiety could reduce the parasympathetic nervous system’s activity, so your digestive tract isn’t getting the input it needs. Impaired muscle contraction can then lead to constipation.
If you’re always sick, always catching the latest cold or flu to go around, stress may be affecting your immune system. Not everyone who is exposed to an infection gets sick; it’s about whether the balance is tipped in your immune system’s favour and not the microbe. An analysis of 25 studies has found that stress increases both the risk of infections diagnosed by symptoms and lab-confirmed infection. It didn’t matter whether they were exposed in everyday life or in a lab setting, either.
Faster Skin Aging
Cortisol, the stress hormone also responsible for waking us up in the morning, causes the breakdown of tissue proteins. Collagen is no exception, and your skin’s collagen may even be lost to chronically high cortisol levels at a much faster rate than anywhere else. A decline in collagen is part of skin aging, weakening your skin and leading to wrinkles.
It’s important to remember that collagen is in all of your connective tissues. My own CircleDNA test results show that I am predisposed to younger-looking skin, but I also have a higher vulnerability to soft tissue injuries and am likely to benefit from collagen supplementation. Stress-induced collagen loss and poor diet could be some of the sneakier physical side effects of anxiety, if you’re the same.
Since stress and anxiety can make you eat poorly, overeat or undereat, it makes sense that other physical symptoms that go with a poor diet would occur.
If you have any of the above physical side effects of stress and anxiety, it’s time to look at how well you manage stress and if you need any extra support. We’re often taught to ignore our bodies’ warning signs in the name of an image, or because we don’t feel we have the time for self-care. To get an even better idea of what your individual needs are, a DNA test from CircleDNA can show you where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and what you can do about them.
Learning self-soothing techniques that regulate your nervous system may help reduce some of these physical side effects of stress. Spending time in nature, going for a walk, performing breathing exercises, going to an exercise class or calling a friend are all examples of ways people self-soothe and reduce the symptoms of stress.