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Feeling Shaky: A Common Sign of Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated November 25th, 2020

Feeling Shaky: A Common Sign of Anxiety

At its core, anxiety is essentially long-term stress. Every day you live with anxiety is a day that you're placing stress on your body, and both anxiety and stress create fairly common symptoms that can hurt your confidence in social situations and make it difficult to complete everyday tasks.

Feeling shaky is a common symptom of anxiety, and one that most people have experienced at some point in their life. It's sometimes possible for shaking to be the only symptom or one of the first symptoms people notice when they're feeling nervous. There are ways to reduce the shakiness, but unfortunately, surging adrenaline makes it hard to control completely.

Shakiness is Something You Need to Deal With in Advance

The reality of feeling shaky is that the best way to stop it is with prevention. There are techniques that can reduce anxiety at the moment, but once anxiety hits it's harder to control than if you never experienced that anxiety in the first place.

So while this article explores anxiety shaking, it helps to remember that anxiety itself is what needs to be controlled the most and with the right treatment the shakiness can go away. 

Why Do We Feel Shaky?

During periods of intense nervousness or anxiety, adrenaline/epinephrine is being pumped into the body as the "Fight or Flight" system is activated. It's the reason that we shake before a big test, or when confronted with a dangerous situation. Your body is essentially preparing to run.

When you suffer from anxiety disorders, your fight/flight system is acting out on its own. You're receiving these rushes of energy, and your body starts to shake as a result. But because you're neither fleeing nor fighting, your body simply continues to shake, and that can cause significant distress for those that are trying to maintain their calm.

Are There Different Types of Triggers?

There are different types of triggers. Or, in a way, different types of shaking. Yet all of them may be due to anxiety. Shaking may be caused by:

  • Short-term Anxiety Everyone - even those that don't have anxiety - can shake when confronted with a situation that causes nervousness. People shake on first dates, they shake before tests, they shake when they have a meeting with their boss; shaking is an incredibly normal experience, but one that is disruptive nonetheless.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) When someone has GAD, their fight or flight system is firing all throughout the day at low levels, and occasionally can pick up at random times. This may cause shaking to occur for what seems to be no reason, although it tends to be less severe than during times of intense stress.
  • Panic Attacks Before, during, or after panic attacks, shaking can be very common. This type of shaking is absolutely caused by the intense fear that those with panic attacks experience. People with panic attacks may also experience occasionally shaking with no apparent trigger, and that shaking can actually cause a panic attack itself as the person worries that something is wrong.
  • Unexplained Tremor Finally, for reasons that are still unclear, those with day to day anxiety may simply feel shaky or develop a tremor in their hands, feet, etc. It's not necessarily clear what's causing this, but long term stress can have unusual effects on your body, and so it should be no surprise that you experience tremor during unusual situations.

There are physical causes of shaking, but these tend to be less common. Also, during periods of stress, the body may deplete important resources, like water or magnesium. Sometimes the body shakes as a result of this nutrient loss. Only a doctor can confirm that you are feeling shaky because of anxiety and not because of some health problem. 

What to Do if You're Shaking

Many people want to stop feeling shaky during periods of anxiety. Feeling shaky makes it hard to show your confidence, and can cause you to feel uncomfortable in many of life's situations.

Controlling short term shakiness is harder than controlling anxiety in the long term. That's because once you start shaking, your anxiety is already activated. The only way to stop shaking with certainty is to get out of the anxiety-causing situation, and often that's not possible. You can't simply walk out of a first date because you're nervous, and unless you get comfortable, that shakiness will probably stay until the date is over.

But that doesn't mean that it's impossible. Here are some tips to control short term shaking, and afterward we'll review some of the ways to control long term anxiety:

  • Drink Water Make sure that you're hydrated. Dehydration can cause shakiness, and many of those with anxiety become dehydrated and allow their shaking to become worse. It won't stop shaking altogether, but it can be a healthy quick fix.
  • Move It's not a huge help, but sometimes you simply need to move. If you run in place for a bit, or wiggle your arms around, you may find that some of your shaking is reduced. If you can exercise, that is even better, because exercise has as natural calming effect on the body.
  • Relaxation Techniques There are several relaxation techniques you can try as well. Some of the most common include:        
    • Visualization
    • Progressive Muscle Relaxation
    • Deep Breathing
  • Slow Breathing - Hyperventilation can also be a cause of feeling shaky. It often occurs during times of intense anxiety. Solve it by slowing down your breathing. Hyperventilation makes you feel like you're not getting enough air, but the truth is that you're getting too much air, so fight the sensation and try to breathe at a slower pace to regain some of the CO2 levels in your body.
  • Body Part Control - Some people find that they can control the shaking if they target each body part one at a time. If your hands are shaking, for example, stare at one hand at a time and see if you can control it. Take deep breaths and move it slowly to make sure that you feel yourself gaining control over the shaking, and then switch to the next hand.

Again, once you start feeling shaky, it's often hard to control it, because the adrenaline has already been released. You can also try to prevent feeling shaky at these types of events by desensitizing yourself to the fear. For example, if you get anxiety during public speaking, try to schedule public speaking events more often. Eventually they'll get boring to you, and you won't shake as much by the time an event matters.

Controlling Long Term Shaking and Anxiety

Shaking caused by anxiety disorders need to be stopped at the source. There are medications and treatments aimed at just stopping the shaking, but these are simply not going to be effective, because every time you have anxiety you run the risk of shaking.

So your goal needs to involve finding some way to stop anxiety permanently. You may not be able to control all shaking from short-term stresses - and you don't want to, because in general some minor degree of anxiety is actually very healthy - but you do want to be able to reduce the random shaking that you experience from anxiety and panic attacks.

In order to do this, you need to get at the heart of your anxiety. There is more than one type of anxiety, so there is also more than one type of treatment. The most common treatments include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Medications 
  • Exercise and Anxiety Management
  • Systematic Desensitization and Exposure Therapy

As with most mental health treatments, each person responds differently to each treatment option, and no one method will work for everyone. But anxiety is a 100% manageable condition when you find the right help, and if you are struggling with shakiness - or any anxiety symptom - it is worth it to try multiple treatments to see which one works for you.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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