How does anxiety feel in your head?

Anxiety is a common mental health condition that can make you feel apprehensive, worried, and overwhelmed. It manifests both emotionally and physically in your head and throughout your body. Understanding how anxiety feels can help you identify when it occurs and find ways to cope.

Physical symptoms of anxiety in your head

When you experience anxiety, your body reacts as if you are in real, imminent danger, even when a threat isn’t present. This triggers the “fight or flight” response, leading to a rush of physical symptoms produced by stress hormones like adrenaline. Many of these sensations are felt strongly in your head.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety in your head include:

  • Headache or migraines
  • Feeling of tightness or pressure in your head
  • Jaw pain from clenching or grinding your teeth
  • Neck pain or soreness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Ringing in your ears (tinnitus)

You may also experience:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing thoughts
  • Overthinking or constant worrying
  • Feeling that your brain is “foggy”

These physical symptoms are your body’s way of trying to protect you from danger. But with anxiety there is no real threat, so your systems overreact. The end result is feeling overwhelmed and physically uncomfortable.

Emotional symptoms of anxiety in your head

In addition to physical symptoms, anxiety also causes many distressing emotions that can largely occupy your mind.

Common emotional symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or on edge
  • Uncontrollable feelings of worry
  • Fear about the future
  • Feeling like you have no control
  • Trouble relaxing or calming your mind
  • Feeling tense or jumpy
  • Sense of impending danger or doom
  • Irritability

You may also experience:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Problems concentrating due to intrusive thoughts
  • Distress about health or finances
  • Panic or feelings that you’re losing control

This barrage of emotions leaves you feeling psychologically and emotionally overwhelmed. Your mind gets locked into cycles of “what if” thinking as you ruminate over all the things that could go wrong.

What a panic attack feels like

Panic attacks represent an intense manifestation of anxiety. They involve sudden, overwhelming physical and emotional symptoms that peak within minutes.

During a panic attack you may feel:

  • A sense of imminent danger or doom
  • Fear of losing control or passing out
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating or chills
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your chest
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Dizziness, weakness, or faintness
  • Tingling or numbness in your hands and fingers
  • Flushes or chills
  • Sense of unreality or detachment from yourself

Panic attacks create an intense feeling that you are under threat. You may feel like you are dying, having a heart attack, or losing your mind. These episodes can leave you physically and emotionally drained afterwards.

Anxiety and your brain

From a neuroscience perspective, anxiety arises from activity in the amygdala and other parts of the brain. The amygdala is involved in processing emotions, emotional memories, and responding to potential threats. In people with anxiety disorders, the amygdala is hyperactive and overreacts to non-threatening stimuli.

Other brain regions like the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus normally regulate the amygdala. But changes in brain chemistry can impair their ability to do so. This creates an imbalance that allows anxiety to prevail.

Brain imaging studies show different patterns of neuronal activation in people with anxiety compared to healthy controls. Changes in neural circuits and neurotransmission are directly related to anxiety symptoms.

Triggers and risk factors

Anxiety can occur without any triggers, or it may be set off by specific situations or events. Common triggers include:

  • Stress at work, school, or in your personal life
  • Financial pressure or money troubles
  • Major life changes like moving, marriages, divorce
  • Traumatic events or abuse
  • Major illnesses or medical issues
  • Big decisions you need to make
  • Arguments, disappointments, loneliness
  • Too much caffeine or stimulation
  • The presence of other mental health conditions like depression

Risk factors that increase your chances of developing an anxiety disorder include:

  • Having a family history of anxiety
  • Trauma during childhood such as abuse or neglect
  • Being female (women are twice as likely to have anxiety)
  • Having other mental health disorders like depression
  • Having a chronic illness
  • Using stimulants or marijuana
  • Suffering from loneliness or isolation

But anxiety can also occur spontaneously, without any specific triggers. The symptoms may ebb and flow unpredictably.

Link between thoughts and anxiety

Anxiety often involves repetitive, stuck thoughts and worry. These anxious thoughts can greatly exacerbate your symptoms. Examples of troublesome thoughts include:

  • “What if I have a panic attack right now?”
  • “I’m going to make a fool of myself.”
  • “My chest feels tight, maybe I’m having a heart attack!”
  • “I’m losing control.”
  • “I can’t cope with this.”
  • “Something terrible is going to happen.”

These negative thoughts and false alarms from your amygdala trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response. This makes anxiety symptoms worse. Learning to identify and reality-test your anxious thoughts is an important part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety.

How anxiety feels day to day

People with chronic anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) feel anxious, worried, and stressed most of the time. Anxiety impairs their ability to relax and manage daily tasks.

Everyday anxiety may include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed with worries about your daily life
  • Trouble making minor decisions or concentrating
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Tense muscles, headaches, insomnia
  • Ruminating over past decisions
  • Overplanning and trying to control situations

People with GAD often describe feeling mentally strained or exhausted from constant cycle of anxiety and worry throughout their day. Physical symptoms like muscle tension, fatigue, and insomnia make anxiety worse.

How anxiety changes over time

In some cases anxiety is limited to specific situations or triggered by life stressors. Symptoms may come and go. But for many people, anxiety is chronic and fluctuates in severity.

Changes in anxiety over time may include:

  • Gradual onset – Symptoms slowly start to appear and worsen
  • Flare ups – Periods of severe symptoms that come and go
  • In response to triggers – Rise in anxiety around situations like work demands or financial stress
  • Unpredictable waves – Anxiety seems to come and go randomly
  • Improves with treatment – Therapy and medications help reduce frequency and intensity
  • Periods of remission – Times when you feel “back to normal”
  • Relapses – After remission, anxiety can return and spike during stressful events

Keeping track of your anxiety patterns over weeks and months can help you identify your triggers. It can also aid your doctor in diagnosis and treatment. Your symptoms may fluctuate, but with professional help you can reduce anxiety’s impact on your life.

When to seek help

Occasional anxiety before stressful events is normal. But see your doctor or a mental health professional if anxiety:

  • Feels excessive, unreasonable, or disproportionate to the situation
  • Causes significant distress or interferes with your normal activities
  • Lasts longer than 6 months
  • Gets progressively worse over time
  • Is accompanied by troublesome thoughts or compulsive behaviors
  • Leads to avoidance of work, school, social activities, or leaving your home

Ask your doctor for screening and treatment options. Anxiety is manageable with professional help and lifestyle changes.

Coping strategies

In addition to professional treatment, you can use self-help coping strategies to manage anxiety symptoms:

  • Deep breathing – Slow deep breaths can reduce tension and calm your mind
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – Tense and relax muscle groups to relieve stiffness
  • Meditation and mindfulness – Quiet your mind and focus on the present moment
  • Exercise – Release endorphins and relieve tension through movement
  • Healthy lifestyle – Sleep, nutrition, activity help regulate your mood
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy – Identify and change negative thought patterns
  • Support system – Talk with trusted friends and family for reassurance
  • Nature and fresh air – Spend time outdoors to reduce stress

Keep trying different anxiety relief strategies to determine what works best for you. Having go-to coping methods empowers you to manage symptoms as they occur.

When to get emergency help

Most of the time, anxiety won’t harm you. But in rare cases, anxiety and panic can spiral out of control and become a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. Seek ER care if:

  • You’re at risk of hurting yourself or others
  • You experience chest pain, dizziness, weakness, tingling, or shortness of breath
  • You have uncontrollable, hyperventilating panic attacks
  • You use alcohol or drugs to tame your anxiety
  • Your anxiety is accompanied by confused thinking or difficulty speaking
  • You have anxiety along with an underlying heart condition

Severe anxiety accompanied by intense physical symptoms can indicate health issues like heart problems, medication effects, or drug use. Seeking prompt treatment can help prevent complications.


Anxiety can be a debilitating condition that impacts your body and mind. Understanding your specific symptoms and patterns provides insight into managing anxiety effectively. While uncomfortable, anxiety symptoms are not dangerous except in special circumstances. Seeking help through lifestyle changes, therapy, medication, and coping strategies can all help you regain control over your anxiety.

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