Anxiety may be a mental health issue, but it can cause physical pain. Here’s what you should know

The mind-body link is strong, so anxiety and pain can go together. Here’s what you should know about anxiety and physical pain.

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that an estimated 5.7 % of American adults experience generalized anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. When comparing the numbers of adults who have experienced anxiety in the past year, there is a higher prevalence in women (2.7%) than in men (1.9%)

Research has known for a long time that the mind-body connection is powerful: What you think and feel can result in physical sensations in the body, including pain. We are only now beginning to understand how emotional health affects our long-term physical health and longevity. Taking care of your mental health is a form of self-care. Here are some things to know and do.

Anxiety can cause physical pain

“Most people experience the symptoms of anxiety at some point in their lives,” said Crystal D. Narcisse, M.D., internal medicine/pediatrics physician with Norton Community Medical Associates. “But if you have these feelings for a long period of time, or your daily life is affected, you may have a generalized anxiety condition.”

Symptoms of anxiety in women include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) issues
  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety

You probably know about the fight-or-flight responses – when you are confronted with danger (whether real or perceived) your body responds in one of these ways. Flight means you run from the danger. Fight means you go toward the source of danger and confront it. When you are in one of these modes, your body releases hormones: adrenaline (uh-DREN’-uh-lin) and cortisol (COR’-tiz-all). These hormones help us exert a lot of energy quickly.

Health care is self-care

One of the best decisions you can make for yourself is to take a moment to set important appointments to ensure your healthiest year possible.

Schedule your annual check up

“Cortisol and adrenaline have an important part to play in our bodies, but if you are constantly in a state of fight or flight, your system is constantly full of these hormones,” Dr. Narcisse said. “You never get to a rested state so you can recover from high hormone levels.”

Prolonged high levels of stress hormones can cause:

  • Weight gain, especially in your face and abdomen
  • Muscle weakness and soreness
  • High blood sugar, which often turns into Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Digestive issues such as gas, bloating or diarrhea
  • Stomach pains or cramps
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia

High stress hormones also can weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off even small viruses.

Talking to your primary care provider about mental health

Women, it turns out, are more likely to seek out help for mental health conditions than men.

“Your annual check up with a health care provider is a good time to also talk about mental health,” Dr. Narcisse said. “Many times, we are the first ones to help diagnose a mental health issue, such as generalized anxiety disorder.” 

During a typical check up, your doctor will take physical measurements, such as height, weight and blood pressure. They also will ask questions about changes in your health history and medications. Many people can feel embarrassed about talking with their doctors about sensitive subjects, such as mental health.

“We understand that it can feel awkward to talk to us about these issues,” Dr. Narcisse said. “But we are here to help you.”

A mental health screening may include questions about:

  • Your family history with mental health, since depression and anxiety can run in families
  • Your sleep, exercise and dietary habits
  • How you cope with stress
  • Your general health history – pain can cause depression, and vice versa
  • How often and how severe your symptoms are

Depending on your answers to these questions and others like them, your doctor may have some recommendations for things you can try at home, such as meditation or yoga. Or they may prescribe medication. You may be referred to a specialist who can work with your primary care team to address your mental health needs.

“If you are prescribed medication, it is very important to follow the doctor’s orders. Never stop taking a medicine unless you are told to,” said Dr. Narcisse. “Be sure to follow up with the prescriber.”

When to see a doctor

“You should see a doctor sooner rather than later if you have symptoms of anxiety or depression,” Dr. Narcisse said. “It’s also very important that you are honest about your health, lifestyle habits and symptoms, so that we can help you start to feel better as soon as possible.”

If you are needing more specialized care, Norton Community Medical Associates patients may be referred to a Norton Behavioral Medicine provider. Because your mental and physical health can be deeply connected, our team of primary care and behavioral health providers works together with you and your support network to deliver care that addresses mental health, substance abuse and other medical needs. Your mental health is every bit as important as your physical health, and the team at Norton Healthcare and Norton Behavioral Medicine can work together to give you the care you need.

If you are in crisis or a loved one is, reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988. You also can contact the lifeline through its website,

The Trevor Project has a crisis line for the LGBTQ+ community: (866) 488-7386 or text “START” to 678678. You also can reach help through The Trevor Project’s website.

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