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7 Physical Symptoms Caused by Anxiety

Updated: Jan 16

What is anxiety? Two hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline mostly cause the physical effects of anxiety. A hormone is kind of like a messenger that tells cells how to react. These two hormones tell all sorts of cells what to do in times of perceived danger, what we call stress. Among many signals, they tell your heart to beat faster, your breath to become more rapid and shallow, your muscles to tense up, and by shifting blood to the major organs and often away from the brain, they send a signal to put a hold on complex thinking.

These hormones also do a few other things. They will cause your body to release sugar from storage, so it is available for quick energy. This will cause fluctuations in other hormones, such as insulin, which also can affect mood and increase anxiety. They will also block other hormones from sending calming signals to cells, specifically Serotonin and GABA hormones.

The biggest myth of all is that anxiety is a disorder, condition, or disease that only afflicts certain people. The reason why this is a myth is that every single human has anxiety. You may observe people in the street, observe them on social media, or know family and friends who you would bet don’t experience anxiety. The truth is that all of us are programmed for it. We are an animal species known as Homo sapiens. Although our brain has evolved to be more sophisticated than other animals, it still runs on the same basic mechanism: assisting us in avoiding dangers, threats, or vulnerabilities. This function is orchestrated by a primitive reaction propagated by a primitive area of the brain. It is known as the fight-or-flight reaction. Whenever any animal, including Homo sapiens, detects a potential threat from signals it receives from its five senses, the brain causes us to spring into action, either to fight the threat or flee from it. For all other animals, these potential threats are external. The “sophisticated” more “evolved” brain of humans can also react to “internal” threats, namely from thoughts. So, the other myth, you may tell yourself, is now busted. You are not weak because you have anxiety; you’re human.

Anxiety is simply the outer manifestation of the fight-or-flight reaction. A common myth that anxiety sufferers may believe is that they just have anxiety—that it just appears for no reason. The brain does not cause this reaction for the fun of it, which means that anytime you experience anxiety, there is a reason. It does not come out of the blue; although, it may seem that way. There is ALWAYS a threat to which the brain is responding, so to “protect” you. Many threats are obvious, such as if you came face to face with a thief, wild animal, or see the flashing lights of a police car in your rearview mirror. The fight-or-flight reaction is primitive and is the same as 50,000 years ago and in other animals today. What is different for us are the threats. Really, it is an antiquated and exaggerated reaction. We don’t need it because, in our lifetime, there are rare instances where we need such a strong reaction. Yet, the reaction is the same. Since we mostly never have anything to fight physically or a reason to flee for our lives, we mostly experience an internal reaction leading to anxiety.

Thus, the reason why we have anxiety is to “protect.” But it is protecting us from circumstances from which we don’t need protection. False Evidence Appearing Real is appropriately reflected by the acronym FEAR. That appearance is enough to create the reaction, automatically, instantaneously. When we experience fear, it causes an intense fight-or-flight reaction, hence the sensation of nervousness or anxiety. For some, this reaction is more profound than others because their perception of danger and fear are more intense. Since our brains develop almost entirely by adolescence, our reactions as adults are based upon the information we stored up as children. If we have an experience as an adult that causes us to become nervous or anxious, it often means that it is caused by FEAR, and the evidence is something we stashed away as a child.

Before I say what I am going to say, please make a note of the following disclaimer. Always seek medical attention for any physical signs or symptoms you may experience. That said, in my 30+ years as an MD practicing Internal Medicine, I have found that the majority of physical complaints, even illnesses, arise from what we call anxiety, i.e., as we have seen, our reaction to perceived danger, threat, or vulnerability. Most doctors and patients focus on the physical symptoms and don’t get to the root, i.e., the true danger. These symptoms represent a modern-day way to fight-or-flee the real danger; in other words, they represent a distraction.

Here are 7 common physical symptoms of anxiety.

Shortness of breath

To fight or flee effectively, we need adequate oxygen. When anxiety strikes, we are signaled to take rapid shallow breaths, commonly known as hyperventilation. This gives the sensation of being out of breath or not being able to take a deep breath.

Chest pain

To fight or flee, our muscles need to be primed. They must help us spring into action. This causes them to tighten up. This tightening and a slight restriction of blood flow to them result in a sensation of pain.

Brain Fog

If we needed to fight or flee a predator, we would need to think clearly. On the contrary, the only outcome that matters is survival. The fight-or-flight reaction, hence anxiety, will shunt blood away from the brain for greater efficiency. This will allow us to better excel in musculoskeletal feats at the expense of critical thinking.

Musculoskeletal pain

To fight or flee danger, our skeletal body must be able to propel strongly and efficiently by our muscles. But what are we actually fighting and fleeing? This tension is built up with no place to go and often results in pain.

Tingling sensations in fingers

The hyperventilation above causes a decreased blood supply to the brain, small blood vessels, and nerves in the extremities, causing this symptom.

Heart racing

To fight or flee, we need an ample blood supply. Our main blood pump, the heart, goes into overdrive to provide this. It can lead to a rapid heartbeat as well as what is known as palpitations.

Stomach pain

In the heat of the battle, we would need to shed any excess weight that might burden us. The body can respond to this by stimulating the gastrointestinal tract to relieve waste from both ends.


Don’t be fooled by the myths you may tell yourself about anxiety. If you are human, you have anxiety. It is not a disorder from which you are destined to suffer. Getting to the root of what perceived dangers are causing the reaction will help alleviate the genuine and uncomfortable symptoms you may be experiencing.

© Dr. Charles F. Glassman, CoachMD

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