Anxiety is a healthy human emotion, but the experience can be uncomfortable. Anxiety is felt and expressed through both psychological and physical sensations.

Anxiety is a healthy human emotion, and most people can cope with short periods of it. However, for some people, short bouts of anxiety can develop into a persistent and disruptive problem, like an anxiety disorder. What does anxiety feel like to most people? The sensations of anxiety are common and easy to notice. However, every individual has a unique perspective and experience.  

Psychological Sensations

In small doses, the mental and emotional effects of anxiety can help a person feel alert and ready for anything. However, an extended period of anxiety can feel unsettling. The psychological effects of an anxiety disorder can be even more disruptive, requiring therapy or medication to manage effectively.

  • Inability to Relax. A person with anxiety often feels a sense of constant mental activity, creating an inability to relax. Anxiety can make it seem that a person’s mental focus is almost always switched on. The brain has difficulty taking a break and emotions stay elevated as well. Without the ability to relax effectively, periods of anxiety can be mentally tiring.
  • High Level of Distress. Everyone has moments when they feel mildly stressed with a few worrisome thoughts. However, when people experience extended anxiety, distressing thoughts are constantly moving through their mind. When this happens, even smaller problems can add to the mental strain. Because these feelings are persistent, individuals with anxiety can feel like everyday life is a struggle.
  • Constant Worry. Worrying can keep an anxious mind busy, but it does little to make a person feel better. People with worry and anxiety tend to imagine negative outcomes for many ordinary events and situations. Most are beyond anyone’s control, like the weather and other people’s thoughts or behaviors. Continuous worry is usually excessive when compared to the problems faced.
  • Rumination. Rumination is the excessive mental repetition of thoughts or problems. For a person with anxiety, rumination can mean their thoughts seem to run on a mental racetrack around the same path. It may seem productive, but it rarely leads to solutions. The repetition makes the negative thoughts stronger.

Physical Sensations

What does anxiety feel like physically? The experience can feel stimulating and energizing. However, these sensations can also feel overwhelming. During periods of stress or anxiety, a person’s sympathetic nervous system is highly active. The nervous system sends signals to all parts of the body. According to Harvard Medical School, this activity within the nervous system creates a fight-or-flight response. This response prepares the body to take quick action to protect itself and survive a perceived threat. The body’s reaction can cause significant distress when it occurs frequently or for extended periods.

  • Rapid Heartbeat. When experiencing anxiety, a rapid, irregular heartbeat is easy to recognize. A person’s strong heartbeat may cause a pulsing sensation in the neck or chest. The increased blood flow quickly pumps freshly oxygenated blood around the body. A rapid heartbeat may be helpful in an actual fight-or-flight situation. However, it can add fear and stress to an already stressful situation.
  • Insomnia. Insomnia is a disruptive and frustrating symptom of anxiety. Insomnia can mean having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early, according to the Mayo Clinic website. A person feeling anxiety may have difficulty feeling relaxed enough to get a full night of rest. With low-quality sleep, everyday activities can be a challenge. This pattern can sometimes lead to more periods of anxiety and insomnia together.
  • Grinding Teeth. Teeth grinding can be a sign of anxiety, but many people are unaware that they do it. Increased muscle tension is one possible cause of teeth grinding. Anxiety can also cause prolonged periods of muscle tension. A person experiencing anxiety may notice more headaches, jaw pain or worn spots on some teeth. Many people clench or grind their teeth in the night. It can also happen during the daytime, according to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.
  • Nausea. Anxiety and nausea are two experiences that often happen together. Anxiety can disturb a person’s digestive system, causing them to feel nauseous at times. For a person who truly needs to fight or flee in a life-threatening situation, an empty stomach is best. The stress response dials down the hunger signals and even makes a person turn away from food. When nausea develops every day, a person with frequent bouts of anxiety may lose weight without trying.
  • Sweating. Sweating is one of the more unpleasant aspects of anxiety. When people start sensing anxiety, sweating can quickly develop on their palms and underarms. Hormones stimulate the release of sweat to help cool the body quickly. The stress response can also occur when a person is sleeping, causing nights sweats. Anxiety stimulates this response to prepare the body for self-defense. However, it can also make a person feel embarrassed.
  • Shortness of Breath. One of the more alarming symptoms of anxiety is shortness of breath. Anxiety often causes people to take shallow breaths instead of deeper, more oxygenated breaths. The lungs can feel tight, creating a smothering sensation. This cycle tends to heighten feelings of anxiety and perpetuate shallow breathing.
  • Dizziness. Anxiety and dizziness often occur at the same time. The inner ear and surrounding brain tissue are called the vestibular system. This system is responsible for a person’s sense of balance according to the Academy of Neurological Physical Therapy. When the parts of the brain related to anxiety symptoms interact with this system, a sense of lightheadedness can occur. In turn, dizziness can also lead to feelings of anxiety.
  • Headache. Anxiety headaches can be persistent and uncomfortable. Some are considered tension headaches, which feel like a tight band around a person’s forehead. Migraines are more severe long-lasting headaches that can also lead to vomiting and light sensitivity. Both types of headaches can cause discomfort and disruption to a person’s daily activities.  

How to Handle Anxiety

Anxiety can range from mildly distressing to severely disruptive. Some people may find relief using healthy coping skills, like creating an anxiety crisis kit or taking specific vitamins. Other people may benefit from seeking support from friends and family. Medication or therapy can help a person with anxiety function well each day. Exercise can train the body to relax after a period of activity.

Anxiety can seem distressing at times. However, anxiety disorders can be treated. Some people use drugs or alcohol to manage anxiety, but these are not healthy coping mechanisms. There are many positive ways to reduce symptoms and improve daily stress management.

Some people may use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate when dealing with anxiety, or these substances may contribute to anxiety. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction and co-occurring anxiety, help is available. Call The Recovery Village to learn more about treatment programs for substance abuse and co-occurring mental health conditions.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
Sources “Understanding the stress response.” May 1, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2019. “Teeth grinding (bruxism).” May 31, 2017. Accessed February 22, 2019. “Dizziness related to anxiety and stress.” August 2015. Accessed February 23, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.