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Why Anxiety Hurts and What You Can Do to Feel Better

January 10, 2019 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Anxiety can hurt physically. Explore the physical symptoms of anxiety and learn why we feel anxiety in the body as well as how you can feel better.

Anxiety can hurt. It can be emotionally painful and it can be physically agonizing, too--so much so that physical symptoms of anxiety frequently send people to their doctor's office or hospital emergency department (ED). Almost 1.25 million people visited an ED for physical symptoms of anxiety annually between 2009 and 2011.1 It's important to seek medical help to rule out serious and potentially life-threatening conditions; however, it's frustrating to be discharged with a shrug and casual statement that "it's just anxiety." Read on to learn more about anxiety's physical symptoms and how to feel better when anxiety hurts. 

How and Why Anxiety Hurts

Per year, 1,250,000 people have visited an ED because anxiety's physical symptoms can be frightening. Anxiety mimics serious medical conditions like heart attack, stroke, and severe asthma attacks. Anxiety can cause symptoms in every system throughout the body. They can include, but aren't limited to: 

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Acid reflux
  • Nausea
  • Frequent urination
  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation
  • Sweating
  • Overwhelming fatigue

Researchers are just beginning to understand why there's such a strong link between anxiety and the body. Anxiety physically hurts because the brain and body are intricately connected, each affecting the other. This mind-body connection means that where the mind goes, the body follows and vice versa. This explains why when we're anxious or stressed, deep breathing is effective in calming us. It's why we get butterflies in our stomach or, in the face of worry or fear we get "cold feet."  Have you ever been worried sick? It's because you're body and mind are functioning as one. 

Two major components of the mind-body connection include the gut-brain axis2 and the amygdala in the brain.3 The gut-brain axis involves the vagus nerve that allows rapid, detailed communication back and forth between the brain and our gut. It's responsible for those above-mentioned butterflies and that gut-reaction, stomach-dropping response to things that makes us afraid. 

The amygdala is a structure in the brain's limbic system. One of the things it does is release neurotransmitters that carry messages to the nervous system. In response to anxiety, it might order the heart to beat faster and the lungs to breathe more quickly. The body sends responses back, and together, brain and body react to, reinforce, and escalate anxiety. 

The brain and body have an intimate connection that creates and perpetuates anxiety. Despite this, we can do things to soothe our physical symptoms of anxiety and feel better. 

How to Soothe Physical Anxiety and Feel Better

One of the most effective things we can do to take care of anxiety in the body is to learn the game played by the mind and body and then play along. Awareness of the mind-body connection allows you to tune in to the communication between brain and body and do things to disrupt the back-and-forth flow of anxiety. Some things to keep in mind as you step into the path between your brain and body:

  • Feeding your gut healthy food will directly affect your brain, helping it reduce anxiety.
  • Easing muscle tension through stretching, yoga, or massage soothes the brain and helps it be calm, even in the limbic system.
  • Deep breathing will allow the lungs to flood the brain with much-needed anxiety-reducing oxygen.
  • Using your nose and essential oils to stimulate the olfactory system can soothe the body from head to toe

These are but a few of the ways you can take advantage of the mind-body connection to feel better physically and mentally. Soothe your anxiety symptoms by understanding why anxiety hurts and using the knowledge to heal body and mind. 

Sources

  1. Dark, Tyra PhD., M.A., Flynn, Heather PhD., Rust, George M.D., Kinsell, Heidi PhD., Harman, Jeffrey S. PhD., "Epidemiology of Emergency Department Visits for Anxiety in the United States: 2009-2011". Psychiatric Services. March 2017. 
  2. Liang, Shan, Wu, Xiaoli, & Jin, Feng. "Gut-Brain Psychology: Rethinking Psychology from the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis". Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. September 11, 2018.
  3. Harvard Women's Health Watch. "Anxiety and Physical Illness". Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, July 2008.       

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2019, January 10). Why Anxiety Hurts and What You Can Do to Feel Better, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2019/1/why-anxiety-hurts-and-what-you-can-do-to-feel-better



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

kirk bretman
says:
February, 20 2019 at 7:31 pm
I am worried what's happening to me these past few days. I'm in the right mind to think now so i take this opportunity to ask for some help. I saw along the way that maybe CBD can help me. I am experiencing a behavior where i feel like i am alone but i am not. I'm stressing myself with no reason, i over think with small things, i feel like im too emotional everytime someone says something about me. I know i need a professional opinion about this but i just want to have an alternative solution and i read that CBD can help me. I am not sure if this thing works. So does anybody tried it? I need a help. Please..
February, 21 2019 at 12:05 pm
Hi Kirk,
I'm sorry to read of your current experiences with anxiety. Regarding CBD (cannabidiol, one of the compounds found in the marijuana plant) studies are underway to verify or disprove the claims that this substance helps mental and physical health. At this point, its use is controversial; that said, many people do report that CBD is very helpful in anxiety relief and other areas of wellbeing. As with any substance, natural or synthetic, each person is affected differently. While CBD might be very effective for one person, it might have no effect on another, and yet another person might have dangerous reactions. Talking with your doctor--and even seeking second or third opinions--can help you decide what is right for you.

These articles discuss marijuana use for anxiety and might provide some insight to help you decide:

Does Medical Marijuana (Cannabis) Help Your Anxiety? https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/anxiety/does-medical-marijuana-cannabis-help-your-anxiety

Marijuana and Anxiety: A Cause or Treatment of Anxiety, Panic Attacks https://www.healthyplace.com/addictions/marijuana-addiction/marijuana-and-anxiety-a-cause-or-treatment-of-anxiety-panic-attacks

The Link Between Marijuana Use and Panic and Anxiety https://www.healthyplace.com/anxiety-panic/articles/link-between-marijuana-use-and-panic-and-anxiety


Anyone with experience with CBD for anxiety is welcome to share what it is/was like for them.
Lizanne Corbit
says:
January, 14 2019 at 5:40 pm
You bring up so many wonderful points in this read! I think one of my favorites has to be this though: Feeding your gut healthy food will directly affect your brain, helping it reduce anxiety.

When we talk about mental health, particularly things like anxiety and depression, we absolutely need be including gut health in the conversation. If we're eating junky, sugary foods we are literally feeding depression and anxiety. Looking at what you eat is a big must-do when it comes to helping ourselves feel totally healthy and well.
January, 16 2019 at 11:51 am
Hi Lizanne,
Thank you so much for adding your valuable insight. Gut health and brain/mental health are united. Being intentional about what we eat and do not eat significantly improves our health and quality of life. Whenever I want to buy a box of chocolate cupcakes, I remind myself of my greater goal and how much I value feeling and functioning well. Will that two minutes of tasting pleasure be worth it? (I must be honest, though. I avoid the box but sometimes buy the two-pack!!).

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