According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions that share features of excessive and persistent fear. Fear is a natural response to an imminent threat; however anxiety occurs when there is anticipation and worry about a future threat. It is estimated that 30 per cent of North Americans suffer from some form of anxiety, and as a disorder it is seen as the number one mental health issue in North America.

Some anxiety in new or unfamiliar situations is normal. This type of anticipation can help you remain alert in times of danger, and give you the strength required to physically fight your way out of an attack. However, when anxiety becomes disabling and persistent, it can lead to many emotional and physical symptoms. Let us discuss the physical symptoms in today’s blog.

Pounding Heart

Heart pounding and chest pain can be an extremely overwhelming symptom of an acute anxiety attack. Before anxiety is diagnosed, this scary symptom may lead you to phone 911 or to make your way to the emergency room of your local hospital. Seeking medical attention is always the correct thing to do in this case. It is better to be checked by medical personnel and to be sent home, than to ignore this potentially life threatening symptom. If you have been diagnosed with anxiety and you feel this symptom coming on, you may want to try some deep breathing exercises. Find a quiet place, gently close your eyes, place your hands on your abdomen and take 10 deep breaths.You will know if you are taking a deep breath if you feel your abdomen expanding as you inhale.

Muscle Tension

Tight muscles and stiffness are common symptoms of acute and chronic anxiety which can contribute to headache and generalized musculoskeletal pain. Deep tissue massage is a non-invasive therapy that is useful for alleviating general muscle tension and inducing relaxation. Research has also shown that regular massage therapy treatments can reduce anxiety and chronic stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.


Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep is a common feature of anxiety, especially if you are a chronic worrier. I often recommend a non-caffeinated tea such as lavender or valerian two hours before bed time to help calm the mind and relax the body. However, having tea just before bed time may be counterproductive if you find yourself waking up to use the washroom during the night.

It is also important to reduce or eliminate your caffeine intake during the day. Caffeine is a stimulant to your nervous system and if you are already feeling stressed or on edge, even a small amount of caffeine can worsen your sleep. Remember to check with your health care provider before taking herbal preparations as there may be interactions with your current medications.

Stomach Upset

The feeling of butterflies or an upset stomach is often experienced by people with anxiety. When the muscles in your stomach become tense, this can be experienced as abdominal pain, nausea and heart burn. There are certain foods such as fatty, greasy foods, dairy and processed, sugary foods that may worsen the stomach upset and for some people, worsen the anxiety symptoms. If stomach upset is a common symptom for you in times of heightened stress or anxiety, aim for nutrient dense whole foods, rich in protein. I also encourage patients to eat every 3 to 4 hours as skipping meals can worse the nausea and heart burn.

Shortness of Breath

Another common symptom of anxiety is shortness of breath. However, if you are unsure if anxiety is causing this symptom, check in with your doctor for an assessment. Try taking a walk at a moderate pace outside if you find yourself hyperventilating during an acute anxiety attack. As you walk, your breathing may reset to its regular pattern. Walking may also serve as a welcome distraction.

Always seek medical attention if you think you are experiencing anxiety. There are many tools available including psychotherapy, meditation and hypnotherapy. As a naturopathic doctor, I routinely counsel patients on improving nutrition, reducing alcohol consumption, caffeine intake and recreational drug use which can help patients control their physical and emotional anxiety symptoms.

About the Author

Dr. Olivia Rose graduated from the University of Guelph with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Nutritional and Nutraceutical Sciences and in 2006, she graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.

In addition to her private practice, Dr. Rose is the director of Fertility Acupuncture Services, a mobile service that brings acupuncture to couples undergoing in vitro fertilization and intrauterine insemination at Toronto fertility clinics. Her special areas of interest include infertility; children and teen health; stress management; weight loss; heart disease; digestive and immune health; skin rejuvenation and pain management. She is a birth doula and has additional training in cosmetic acupuncture and needle-less therapies for skin rejuvenation and joint pain.

Dr. Rose is a sought-after lecturer for community organizations; a freelance writer and mentor to new graduates. She has been interviewed by various media outlets including Global Toronto’s, “The Morning Show”, “News at Noon” and “News Hour”. In her free time, she unplugs at the spa and she enjoys spending quality time with her husband, son and tea-cup Yorkie. For more information on Dr. Rose's practice and special events, please visit -