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How to Cope With the Physical Effects of Anxiety

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I just got back from my second remedial massage in as many weeks, and apparently, I’ll be going back for more over the next few as well.


The amount of tension that has built up in my muscles because of my anxiety has become so bad that there are layers upon layers that need to be broken up. During my massages, the masseuse uses infrared light to try and break up some of the tension, in addition to a heat pack and physio cream. In between these professional massages, I need to use a heat pack on my back, neck and shoulders every day and Physio cream three times a day.

Let me tell you; it hurts.

If you also struggle with social anxiety, or any kind of anxiety, this kind of physical effect of your mental illness won’t sound particularly unusual.

I’ve known for some time now that my anxiety was causing physical results, but haven’t done much to actively manage it. I’ve been getting stress migraines for years, and while I’m sleeping, I have a habit of clenching my jaws together and grinding my teeth. The teeth grinding has become so bad I now have to wear a mouth guard when I sleep to stop me causing further damage to my teeth — the bottoms are all jagged from the grinding.

And that’s not even including the day-to-day effects I experience, which include dry mouth, excessive sweating and fatigue.

I’ve been on my anxiety medication for some time now, and I think because it has masked how much I feel the severity of my anxiety, I haven’t actively been doing much to address the issue. As a result, it has built up in other, more physical ways.

I think I’ve learned my lesson now though, and have started to do some research into ways to help reduce the physical effects of my anxiety and put a plan in place to make sure it doesn’t get this bad again.

These are some of the best strategies I’ve discovered for managing the effects of my physical anxiety:

1. Physical exercise

We all know the endorphins you get from exercising make you feel better, but if you’re not up for a full-on cardio session, even low-impact exercises will help you minimize the physical effects of anxiety (Saeed, Sy Atezaz, Diana J. Antonacci, and Richard M. Bloch. “Exercise, yoga, and meditation for depressive and anxiety disorders.” American family physician 81.8 2010). You could try yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, going for a walk around the block, aqua aerobics or even a bounce class (it’s hard not to feel some joy when bouncing on a trampoline, and the laughter will help relax your muscles).

My masseuse also gave me some exercises to do regularly in order to stretch the muscles and release the tension from my neck, back and shoulders. The ones I’ve found help me most are: turning my head from side to side; trying to touch my shoulder with my ear; stretching both hands (held together) above my head and looking up; and standing with both arms outstretched to the side and moving both hands in small, backward circles.

2. Relaxation techniques

I’ve never really believed that relaxation techniques have a huge effect on you physically, but according to WebMD, “Practiced regularly, relaxation techniques can counteract the debilitating effects of stress.”

Some of the most popular and recommended relaxation techniques for people living with anxiety include:

– mindfulness exercises (e.g. coloring in) and meditation
– writing lists
– bubble baths, or baths using magnesium flakes
– using physio cream (good for relaxing your muscles)
– listening to classical music
– massages
– scents and essential oils such as lavender
– deep breathing
– using heat packs or physio cream on sore muscles.

These are all strategies you can work into your daily schedule and, if you do them often enough, will have a positive effect on your physical health.

3. Experiment with alternative therapies

Before my next massage, my masseuse wants me to do a 30-minute session with an infrared blanket on my back. Apparently, this will help to loosen my muscles so when I get to her, she will actually be able to give me a massage without “pummeling” me (her words).

I haven’t tried anything like this before, but I’m willing to give it a shot. If it works, I might even think about buying one myself or doing this regularly, as apparently infrared blankets are also good for sweating out toxins, improved circulation, skin purification and helping you lose weight (Dr Amy Myers, MindBodyGreen).

Another alternative relaxation therapy I’ve wanted to try since I saw “Stranger Things” and found out it was an actual thing, is floatation therapy. Floatation therapy, also known as “sensory deprivation,” is where you lie in water so saturated with Epsom salt that you float. This activity has been proven as an effective way of easing anxiety, and although I’m a little nervous to try it, all the reviews I’ve read have said it has helped ease physical pain as well as mental health conditions like anxiety.

4. Talk to a professional

While I know regularly exercising and relaxing will help reduce the physical symptoms of my anxiety, I also need to acknowledge that for me, it’s important to touch base with a mental health care professional. In the past, my therapist has helped me with practical strategies that have helped me learn to recognize my triggers and better manage both the mental and physical effects of my anxiety.

I think I’m at the stage where going back to therapy will be a way of keeping myself accountable and ensuring I keep up with the habits and strategies I know will help me long-term.

I think the most critical lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that my anxiety isn’t going to go away — it’s here for life — and even though I might feel fine for a while, it’s important to keep doing the things that help manage it, so it doesn’t build up until the point of such physical pain. Staying healthy is a daily commitment. Ignoring the problem is only going to make it worse.

As with any problem, the longer you wait to do something about the physical effects of your anxiety, the harder it will be to rectify, and the longer your road to recovery.

To learn more about the physical effects of anxiety on your body, you might find reading “Anxiety and Exhaustion: Wired and Tired” and “Anxiety in the Body: Physical Side Effects of Anxiety,” two blogs written by Tanya J. Peterson (MS, NCC).

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Thinkstock photo via fizkes

Originally published: August 8, 2017
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