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Stomach pains? Headaches? When physical symptoms might be anxiety

Short of breath lately? Maybe it's your asthma. Lots of stomach aches? You've probably had a bit of gastro. Ongoing fatigue? Could be a virus. Then again, maybe the cause is something else.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting more than 2 million people a year. One in four people will experience it at some stage in their life, according to Beyond Blue. But it isn't always easy to spot; anxiety symptoms can appear in the body as well as the mind.

Anxiety affects more than 2 million Australians every year. Credit:Getty

"As a GP, I think one of the common scenarios that surprises people is how often mental distress can manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches, neck aches, back pains, stomach aches, palpitations and dizziness," says Dr Grant Blashki, lead clinical adviser for Beyond Blue. "We call this somatisation."

What to look out for

Each anxiety condition is unique. But there are common symptoms, including:

Psychological: excessive fear, worry, catastrophising, or obsessive thinking.

Behavioural: avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious, which can affect study, work or social life.

Physical: panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound-up and edgy.

If you have a number of physical symptoms, with no obvious cause, this might be a clue that anxiety is to blame, Dr Blashki says.

"The research tells us that the more unexplained physical symptoms there are, the higher probability that there might be an underlying mental condition such as depression or anxiety," he says.

Psychological, behavioural and physical symptoms are the most common signs of anxiety. Credit:Getty

Check out the checklist

If you think you may have anxiety, Beyond Blue's online resources, including an anxiety checklist, might help. The checklist is confidential and, while not a diagnosis, may provide information and contacts so you can get some support depending on your score.

However, a diagnosis should only be sought from a health professional, and Dr Blashki advises people to see a GP as they are ideally placed to work out whether you've got a mental health or physical issue.

"GPs are trained to properly assess for both physical and mental health conditions," Dr Blashki says.

Get that diagnosis right

If your physical symptoms don’t respond to treatment, it's okay to ask your physician whether anxiety is the issue. "I often see patients who had an underlying anxiety condition that hasn't been diagnosed and have been on the medical merry-go-round of multiple doctors and investigations trying to explain their symptoms," Dr Blashki says.

It's also important to be aware that occasionally, what was thought to be anxiety can turn out to be diabetes, thyroid problems, medication side-effects, or another physical condition.

A diagnosis for anxiety should only be sought from a health professional.Credit:Getty

So, if you're not making any progress with your symptoms, it might be worth asking your GP to check whether you have anxiety or get a second opinion. And don't worry about upsetting anyone. "Doctors are generally very relaxed about patients getting second opinions from colleagues and are quite accustomed to it," Dr Blashki says.

If anxiety is diagnosed, the solution might be anything from lifestyle changes to e-therapies to psychological treatment. But the first step is finding out whether that stomach ache really is gastro or something worth exploring further.

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, reach out to Beyond Blue for support. Visit to learn more.

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