The Outward Signs of Inward Distress: How to Monitor Stress & Anxiety

Many of us are aware that stress and anxiety can affect our emotions, thoughts and behaviour. However, we are so used to living with and suppressing our distress that we can sometimes carry physical symptoms without even realising it. Recognising the physical signs of stress is often an important step in learning how to understand and manage it.

Although we may think of mental issues as an invisible illness, we can find clues by paying attention to our body. For example, you may be aware that when you feel stressed, your lower back aches... or when you feel nervous, you get butterflies in your stomach. But what about the other ways in which your body may react to psychological stresses? Here are some suggestions of various physical complaints associated with mental worries:

HEAD: heavy, pounding, light, dizzy, tight, aching... stiff jaw... dry mouth... teeth-grinding
NECK: tight, stiff... lump in throat... hard to swallow
ARMS: loose, tense, tired, tingling, heavy, throbbing
HANDS: clenched, sore, stiff, cold, hot, sweaty, clammy
CHEST: tight, wheezy, constricted, heavy, blocked, aching... quickened heartbeat
STOMACH: butterflies, knotted, tight, churning, sickly, hollow, bloated... appetite changes
LEGS: heavy, aching, tight, stiff, elastic, shaking, tingly, tired... pacing
FEET: tapping, tingling, itchy, cold, hot

Of course, all serious concerns should be investigated by your GP. However, we may automatically interpret our physical ailments as an underlying medical condition, which causes us to worry even more, which further heightens our physical symptoms... thus perpetuating the vicious cycle!

If you would like to develop a better understanding of the relationship between your body and your mind, you may find it useful to spend a few minutes during times of stress and anxiety to notice what is going on in your body.


The next time you feel mentally distressed or uncomfortable, take a moment to yourself and sit down for a few minutes in silence. Close your eyes and notice how your body feels. If you find this difficult at first, try tensing a part of your body for a few seconds, such as your foot, and visualise it as you do so. Then relax it and sense how this part of you feels. Repeat this pattern for parts of your body, spending time examining what each area is experiencing. I have included a checklist below, which you may find useful for keeping track of how your body reacts to certain emotional states.

The main emotions I feel today:

Physical Checklist









 Energy levels:

 Body temperature:

 Other physical senses:

If you get into a habit of noticing your bodily symptoms at times of distress, and the emotions you seem to be feeling at the time, you may be able to identify patterns that will help you understand how your feelings of stress and anxiety affect your day-to-day functioning. This can be particularly helpful when you feel uncertain about whether your physical aches and pains are due to an underlying medical condition, or whether they may be due to psychological causes. 

It can be a relief and release to realise that sometimes our physical ailments are simply an outward manifestation of inward distress. This means that if our mental difficulties are dealt with, our physical discomfort may also diminish.

By learning how to spot these symptoms, you can take steps to learn how to relax those areas of tension and discomfort, and talk to a counsellor about how to manage them.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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