Shaking: Psychological or physical cause?

Originally Published: February 18, 2005 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 30, 2011
Share this
Hi Alice,

I'm not exactly sure what is wrong with me, but lately, I have started shaking if I am in a situation where I am under stress. For example, raising my hand in class makes my hands shake. I also shook when I discovered I was missing a page on a midterm. I am a junior in college, and I have NEVER had this problem before. Does this sound like something psychological or physical?

Thanks,
Shaking

Dear Shaking,

Although more information is needed to determine the cause of your shaking, it sounds likely that it's being caused by stress. From time to time, many people experience shaking due to anxious feelings. These moments of shaking only become a problem when it disrupts one's daily life. Certain situations and concerns can trigger this physical symptom of excessive shaking for short periods of time. Examples of such situations and concerns include fears of:

  • Test taking
  • Addressing large groups
  • Interacting with people unfamiliar to you
  • Not meeting expectations you set for yourself

As these situations and worries dissipate, the symptoms usually do, too. Other short-lived bursts of the emotional and physical symptoms associated with anxiety include:

  • Shaking, trembling, or twitching
  • Breathlessness or rapid heartbeat
  • Excessive startle reflex
  • Sweating or cold, clammy hands
  • Restlessness, irritability, or feeling on edge
  • Excessive worrying
  • Fatigue

Based on what you have written, your shaking episodes seem to coincide with school-related periods of stress; it could be surmised that the shaking is a physical manifestation of a strong emotion. To be certain of the cause of your shaking, you might consider scheduling an appointment with your health care provider. If you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment using Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284. A medical exam could determine if your shaking is related to a more serious neurological condition. In addition, if the shaking is due to stress and it's really starting to get in the way of your life, there may be some treatments available to you.

Excessive amounts of caffeine (in coffee, tea, or energy drinks) or alcohol can contribute to shaking. If you use these substances, cut back and see if the trembling stops or lessens. Similarly, over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants and certain cold remedies, can also cause shaking, as can some prescription drugs. Talk about these with your medical provider if they apply to you. For additional information about tremors, check out this information on the MedlinePlus site.

Of course, right now you could look into stress-busting techniques, such as deep relaxation, meditation, or breathing exercises, which may also help with your shaking. If you are a Columbia student, check out Stressbusters, a student organization that provides free back rubs across campus, as well as resources for coping with stress. Addressing the causes of stress may help you find the cause of your shaking. Good luck!

Alice