Common physical anxiety symptoms include:
- Breathing difficulties – the resulting imbalance of CO2 and oxygen can lead to:
- Chest tightness
- Shooting chest pains
- Feeling like you can’t breathe
- Heart pounding and racing
- What feels like an irregular heartbeat
- Sweating or hot flushes
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Feeling sick
- Shaking hands and legs
- Sweaty palms
- Tingling or numbness of the arms, legs, fingers, toes or face
- Blurred vision
- Ringing or pulsating in the ears
- Body tremors
- Digestive issues – stomach cramps, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux
- Muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and jaw, which can result in physical aches, pains and headaches
Panic attacks are also associated with physical anxiety symptoms. The cause of these symptoms relates to the chronic activation of the threat stress response. We prefer the term “autostress”, coined by Dr John Arden.
"Like autoimmune disorders that hijack the immune system, attacking the body instead of protecting it, autostress [transforms] the stress response system into something that attacks the self rather than protecting it."
That’s why you can experience physical anxiety symptoms when you don’t currently have anything to feel anxious about.
Autostress lingers from past experiences, which is why people on the C-PTSD spectrum are particularly prone to physical anxiety symptoms.
The relaxation response – the physiological opposite to the stress response.
And this is where Nikola Tesla comes in. He said: "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration."
Threat Stress Response
Brain waves quicken
Increased blood pressure
Heart rate increases
Digestion slows down
Decreased immune response
Cortisol and adrenaline levels increase
Brain waves slow down
Decreased blood pressure
Heart rate decreases
Normal digestive functioning
Increased immune response
Libido returns to normal state
To reduce physical anxiety symptoms, you need to regularly activate the relaxation response. In doing so, you move into slower frequency brain waves.
Beta Waves (13-30 Hz)
Alpha Waves (8-12 Hz)
Being in nature
Listening to auditory stimuli
Meditating and doing breathing exercises
Activities to Reduce Physical Anxiety Symptoms
When you practice tuning into your body, you'll notice your heart rate and breathing slowing down, which indicates you've entered the relaxation response.
Here are four kinds of activities to try - it’s all about experimenting and discovering what works best for you.
- Being in nature
- Listening to auditory stimuli
- Doing breathing exercises
1. Being in Nature
There are plenty of theories about why being in nature is so therapeutic. One has to do with the presence of fractals and their impact on the brain. Fractals are repetitive patterns found in plants, flowers, rivers, mountains, clouds and seashells.
Consider trees. You have large branches growing out of a trunk. Those branches have smaller branches, and so forth. The more you zoom in, the finer and finer the branches get.
Interestingly, despite their rich appearance, fractals are visual representations of mathematical algorithms that are extraordinarily simple – they're full of "loops" and “iterations”.
Fractals are easy for your brain to digest.
Professor Richard Taylor explains:
"Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment."
Want more nature in your life? Be sure to check out our free Ecotherapy Workbook for lots of inspiration. Research suggests that spending two hours a week in nature is enough to significantly improve your mental wellbeing.
2. Listening to Auditory Stimuli
Studies have found that listening to certain kinds of music can cause a significant increase in alpha waves, reducing beta waves in people showing physical anxiety symptoms.
Specifically, research tends to focus on classical music - Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos K448 by Mozart is often used – and the power of fractals may explain why.
Harlan Brothers, a composer and mathematician, studies fractals in music. He identified fractals in the music of famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach. In Cello Suite No. 3, patterns of long and short notes reappeared again at larger scales.
Just like fractals in nature are easier for our brain to visually process, fractals in music may be easier for our brain’s auditory systems to digest, allowing our brain waves to slow down.
It was noted by the researchers that listening to Für Elise did not result in significant changes to brain wave activity. When listening to these songs, we can notice how Cello Suite No. 3 and Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos K448 are more repetitive in nature, hinting at the presence of fractals.
Another way to induce the relaxation response through auditory methods relates to the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). This refers to a calming, tingling sensation that begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine.
A recent study found that auditory stimuli is particularly effective at inducing ASMR, and whilst it’s happening, people’s alpha wave activity is increased.
The sound of whispering seems particularly conducive to ASMR. Here’s a video with 23 million views if you’re interested in trying this for yourself. There are literally thousands of YouTube videos to explore! Keep in mind that some people appear to be more prone to ASMR than others.
While browsing YouTube, you might come across ASMR cat purring videos (like this one).
The frequency of a cat’s purr is around 25Hz. Interestingly, various researchers have shown that sound frequencies in this range can aid bone growth, heal fractures, relieve pain, and help with breathing problems.
That’s why cats also purr when they’re stressed: it’s their inbuilt self-soothing mechanism.
One study found that cat owners are less likely to die from heart attack, stroke, and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
Finally, when it comes to alpha wave auditory stimuli, many people report feeling relaxed by binaural beats.
Binaural beats occur when you hear different frequency sounds in each ear at the same time. The two frequencies are processed by your brain and produce the perception of a third frequency.
A review of 22 studies found that binaural beats in the theta and delta bands can effectively reduce anxiety.
Here’s a 15 minute theta wave YouTube video to try.
Why not explore different sounds – classical music, ASMR, cat purring, binaural beats – and see what helps you feel relaxed? You can then create your own Alpha Waves Playlist.
The relaxation response was first discovered by Herbert Benson while studying people practicing transcendental meditation (TM).
He made the discovery in the same room at Harvard University that the stress response was discovered in!
He outlines a step-by-step process for shifting into the relaxation response through meditation:
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face.
- Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say a word or phrase (e.g., "one"*) silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say "one"*, in and out, and repeat "one."* Breathe easily and naturally.
- Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. Don’t worry about whether you’re successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. When distracting thoughts occur (they will – repeatedly!), gently redirect your attention back to repeating "one."*
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You can open your eyes to check the time, but don’t use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Don’t stand up for a few minutes.
- With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.
*You can pick any soothing word, preferably with no meaning or association, to avoid mental stimulation, e.g., relax, alpha, enough, etc.
It’s common for people with physical anxiety symptoms to feel uncomfortable focusing on their breath and/or bodily sensations. If this is your experience, don’t worry – you can enter the relaxation response by just focusing on the word/phrase.
Benson notes, “Anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will evoke this physiological state." So, it’s all about learning how to switch off from our constant inner chatter.
It’s about giving ourselves permission to stop planning, analysing, and problem-solving.
It’s a skill and it takes practice. Research shows that the more advanced the meditation practitioner, the more reliably they can shift into slower frequency brain waves.
4. Breathing ExercisesBreathing exercises have also been found to induce alpha brain waves.
Breathing problems are actually the root cause of the most common physical anxiety symptoms. Did you know you can even be holding your breath without realising it?
When it comes to breathing difficulties, you might experience:
1) Shallow breathing (breathing in too quickly),
2) Over-breathing (breathing in more air as you feel like you’re not getting enough, for example through yawning or sighing frequently).
Some people do both.
Let’s take a moment to test your breathing:
- Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly.
- Breathe for a few seconds. Which hand rises?
- If it’s your chest, you might have developed a habit of shallow breathing.
Whereas chest breathing is linked to physical anxiety, abdominal/diaphragmatic/belly breathing is our natural breathing pattern. Babies do it.
Although the effects of breathing problems can be very unpleasant, you can reverse the habit by practising controlled breathing exercises.
If you’ve been chest breathing for a while, belly breathing might feel a little strange. Don’t worry - over time, it’ll become more natural.
The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit provides instructions and flashcards for these breathing exercises:
- Equal Breathing
- 4-2-6 Breathing
- Alternative Nostril Breathing
- 4-7-8 Belly Breathing
- The Box Breathing Technique
Breaking the Addiction to Doing
Relaxing is hard for lots of people.
In slowing down, we act against cultural norms and societal messaging.
The emphasis on productivity and striving is deeply embedded in Western society. It’s even in the World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health:
"Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."
Perhaps you had this message amplified by well-intentioned parents. Growing up, did they tend to focus their praise and attention on your achievements? If so, they signalled to you that being productive equates to being loved and worthy. If this happened to you, this video from The School of Life might help you change your mindset.
To feel better, we need to let go of the need to always be productive, untying it from our sense of self-worth.
How Buddhist Teachings Naturally Calm the Mind
Life is characterised by “dukkha”, which literally means “a wheel out of kilter”.
Dukkha is often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. But we can think of it more accurately as the feeling that something isn’t quite right.
Our brain is a problem-solving, analytical organ. It will always be able to latch onto perceived “problems” given that life is characterised by dukkha.
Dukkha also permeates our relationships. Research by John Gottman shows that 69% of relationship problems are unsolvable, “perpetual problems”.
So, what if you could shift away from the “problems and solutions” mindset that keeps your brain in overdrive?
What if you could let go of constantly fixing and doing and striving and lean into accepting and simply being?
That’s what Buddhism teaches through mindfulness.
When we truly internalise the reality of life, the concepts of dukkha, impermanence, and non-duality (shifting away from categorical good/bad thinking), we can achieve “satori”, a Buddhist term for awakening/comprehension/understanding.
In satori, the mind naturally settles.
Blinkist is an app that summarises bestselling books into short audio and written “blinks”. There's lots of books on Buddhism, mindfulness, and other helpful philosophies. Here are some we recommend reading/listening to:
- Buddhism – Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
- The Four Noble Truths of Love by Susan Piver
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Aware by Daniel J Siegel
Head to their website and listen to these as part of a free trial.
In The Thinking Slow Method in The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit, we outline a method called Parts Noting that can also help you facilitate a shift to mindful living.
You might have heard of the Noting Technique in meditation. This involves noting what you’re experiencing as a way to help you stay present (e.g, stating “thinking” when you notice thoughts arising, or “hearing” when you notice sounds).
Parts Noting is similar - the difference is that the focus is on your behaviour.
This method is inspired by the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS). Family therapist Richard C. Schwartz noticed that many of his clients spoke about “parts of themselves”.
By becoming more mindful of your different “parts”, you can understand yourself better and make positive changes to your behaviour.
To effectively slow down, try noting the The Fixer part of you that latches onto problems and solutions, engaging in the never-ending cycle of things to fix/improve/optimise.
In addition, there’s The Overcontroller. This part of you fixates on having as much control over things as possible, for example, by controlling your food intake or making an excessive number of lists.
When you notice The Fixer or The Overcontroller in action, note it, and gently redirect your attention to being present.
Of course, it’s a balance.
We’re built to strive and achieve goals. The brain systems behind striving help you take care of your basic needs.
But the reality is many of us are in strive-overdrive and it harms our health and mental wellbeing.
Being honest with yourself about whether this affects you can save you regret further down the line.
In her book The Five Top Regrets of the Dying, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware describes how “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” is one of the most common things she hears from people on their deathbeds.
What effect does strive-overdrive have on your:
- Mental wellbeing?
Is it really worth it? Or will you be like Ware's patients, wishing you'd have made different life decisions when your time is up?
Is it time to start doing things differently, seeing yourself and your life in a new way?
The Power of Slowing Down
Regular elicitation of the relaxation response has been shown to result in powerful and enduring biochemical and physiological changes that supercharge your health and reduce physical anxiety symptoms.
You have the power to change the expression of your genes in a way that makes you more resilient to stress, anxiety and burnout, plus all the associated physical health issues.
Benefits of regular relaxation response practice include:
- Reduction of both mental and physical anxiety symptoms
- Improved immune system
- Improved mood
- Improved sleep
- Increased energy levels
Besides life regrets around overworking, what are the consequences of not slowing down, of remaining in a state of elevated physical anxiety symptoms/autostress?
Well, research indicates that a staggering 80 to 90% of all doctor’s visits are stress-related.
Stress affects your entire body and can contribute to a wide range of physical health issues such as heart disease, chronic pain, and sleep dysfunction.
It can be easy to ignore what’s going on with our bodies, autopiloting our way through life with a focus on our external rather than internal environment.
Many people are so fixated on what’s causing their distress, and not on how it’s impacting them. This can lead to rising levels of poor mental wellbeing that can creep up on you in slow and insidious ways.
There’s a saying: “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.”
It’s important to get familiar with your personal signs of poor mental wellbeing as this allows you to take quicker and more effective action to get better.
Nikola Tesla is quoted as saying, "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration."
This is certainly true when it comes to understanding physical anxiety symptoms.
Research suggests that these symptoms are associated with chronic activation of the threat stress response and high frequency beta brain waves.
To effectively reduce physical anxiety symptoms, build a daily habit of slowing down your brain waves and shifting into the relaxation response.
Try to do this for 10-20 minutes each day.
Spending time in nature may slow down your brain waves through the presence of fractals – repetitive patterns which are easy for your brain to process.
Listening to certain sounds may also induce alpha brain waves, for example:
- Classical music
- ASMR-related auditory triggers
- Cat purring
- Theta/delta wave binaural beats
Meditation practice is known to bring about the relaxation response. While meditating, it’s important to maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.
Breathing exercises are another a popular method for reducing physical anxiety symptoms. You could use printable flashcards to learn different breathing techniques.
You might encounter some internal resistance to slowing down. That’s completely understandable - society emphasises the need to be productive and constantly striving. It fuels capitalism.
You might have internalised this message even more if your parents focused on praising your achievements rather than your efforts and personal qualities; you've learned to equate productivity with being loved and feeling worthy.
How liberating would it be to just allow yourself to be content?
To calm a busy mind, try leaning into accepting things exactly as they are – inherently flawed; filled with perpetual problems.
For your mental and physical health, start to break your addiction to doing.
Living in a state of autostress is harmful for both your mental and physical wellbeing.
Remember: Your work is not your worth.
It's healthy to slow down. Your body needs you to slow down.
Try parts noting and explore Buddhist teachings to quiet your inner chatter.
Listening to your favourite book summaries on a regular basis can help you reinforce new thinking patterns and change your behaviour.
There are a multitude of other ways to reduce physical anxiety symptoms (exercise is a key one). Often, it’s the accumulation of small changes that add up to create substantial improvements we can feel.
Be sure to check out our premium tool to help guide you on this journey, The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit. Feedback we’ve received includes:
"It was like all the knowledge I had accumulated over the last decade was neatly organized and easy to understand all in one place."
"This toolkit took me from depressive with no hope for the future to blossoming, with good relationships, goals and better habits for success. This toolkit is like 10 therapy sessions in one."
Click here to find out more.