Can It Be This Simple?

Identify and Ease Your Anxiety The Easy Way

The Basics

WHAT: Simple guidance on identifying and easing anxiety

SOURCE: Harvard Medical School

GREAT FOR: Anxiety Release, Stressed Mind & Body,


Simple strategies can reduce the headaches, upset stomach, and shortness of breath that may be activated by emotional stress

You’ve had headaches on and off, or possibly nausea, or muscle pain. It could be emotions, rather than a physical illness, driving your symptoms.

Blame your autonomic nervous system. This is a system in your body that you don’t consciously control, but that regulates things like your heart rate, breathing, urination, and sexual function. It’s also the system that reacts when you are under a physical threat. The autonomic nervous system produces your fight-or-flight response, which is designed to help you defend yourself or run away from danger.

What causes anxiety attacks?

When you are under stress or anxious, this system kicks into action, and physical symptoms can appear — headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, shakiness, or stomach pain. “Doctors see it all the time — patients with real pain or other symptoms, but nothing is physically wrong with them,” says Dr. Arthur Barsky, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Identifying and Easing Anxiety

It’s possible to become so fixated on the physical effects from your anxious state that you don’t even realise you were anxious to begin with, says Dr. Barsky. So, how do you know if anxiety is causing your symptoms? And if it is, how can you feel better? Dr. Barsky offers some tips to help you interrupt this cycle.

Stop and assess. “The first step is to pause for a second and observe what’s going on with your body,” says Dr. Barsky. Think about what you are experiencing and whether it relates to a feeling of emotional upset or a reaction to something alarming or stressful.

Distract yourself. If you suspect anxiety is at the root of your physical symptoms, distraction can be a helpful tool. Even something as simple as watering the plants or putting together a jigsaw puzzle can help. Distractions are different for each person. Try different activities to figure out what takes your mind to a calm place.

Relax your body — or work it. To relieve stress, try some deep breathing or relaxation exercises such as a walk or daily run. 

Get checked. There is a difference between anxiety that triggers physical symptoms and physical symptoms that trigger anxiety, says Dr. Barsky. For example, people who are having an asthma attack and therefore having trouble breathing will likely feel anxious. But anxiety is not causing their shortness of breath. If you have a physical problem that does not resolve with relaxation or other techniques, contact your doctor to have it checked out.

Know when to seek help. Simple anxiety sometimes crosses the line and becomes an anxiety disorder. Signs that you might have a problem include shying away from activities because you are fearful, or being so preoccupied with worry that it affects your ability to function.

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