Yes, Your Anxiety is Affecting Your Physical Health
March 13, 2020
Political turmoil, climate change, 24/7 news cycles, pressures to exceed in higher education settings, relationship struggles, the addictive nature of social media-- it seems like it never ends. As our responsibilities grow and the pressures of everyday life mount, we may experience greater levels of anxiety than we even care to recognize.
But when anxiety strikes, our mood and mental health are not the only things negatively affected. Behavioral changes may be observed, but sometimes, for those who experience chronic conditions, there can be serious physical consequences that manifest in a multitude of ways.
To find treatments for the physical side effects of anxiety, it is important to also familiarize ourselves with the causes of anxiety, its different types, and explore the various ways our bodily health can pay the price for ignoring or leaving anxiety disorders untreated.
What Causes Anxiety?
So what’s the deal? Why do we get anxious?
Believe it or not, everyone needs a little bit of anxiety in their life. It keeps us on our toes and actually comes in handy when we are in serious or life threatening situations. Think about how it might feel to be in a burning building, or you are at the beach and a wave pulls you under. In moments like this, our body fills with adrenalin and our brains urge us to act.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, anxiety is the natural reaction to stress that arises in the amygdala, a region of our brains that is said to govern our more intense emotional responses. The amygdala carries electrical impulses to the sympathetic nervous system, elevating heart rates and breathing, tensing our muscles, and altering blood flow from our abdominal organs to the brain.
For short term situations, this can be highly effective in confronting an immediate crisis. At healthy levels, it helps us stay alert and aware. However, for those who experience these feelings more often than not, it can be debilitating and can hurt our relationships, our work life, schooling, and our health.
Anxiety doesn’t just have to be from environmental factors, either. Structural imaging studies show that pediatric patients who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) appear to have higher ratios of gray matter to white matter in the upper temporal lobe, as well as increased amygdala volume. And in general, increased activity in emotional-processing brain regions in patients who have GAD could potentially be caused by decreased inhibitory signaling by GABA receptors or increased excitatory neurotransmissions by glutamate.
Types of Anxiety
Not everyone’s anxiety is the same. Identifying your type is the first step in getting the correct treatment.
So, you’re anxious... a lot. Now that you’ve assessed how you feel, something that a mental health professional can assist with is pinpointing your exact form of anxiety. It can come in many different shapes and sizes, from panic disorders to OCD, from chronic to acute. Acknowledging your type can not only help you cope with what might have been a mysterious affliction and better understand ways to treat your symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorders include the following:
Generalized anxiety disorder, which is usually persistent and occurs during ordinary routines or events. This anxiety can be inflated in relation to the seriousness of the task or occassion and is usually difficult to control on your own.
Panic disorder involves experiencing repeated episodes of intense anxiety and fear that, within minutes, reach a peak and produce a panic attack. Attacks can cause shortness of breath, chest pains, a pounding heart, and a sense of impending doom.
Agoraphobia is a kind of anxiety when you fear or avoid spaces or situations that might cause you to have a panic attack or make you feel trapped.
Social anxiety disorder raises levels of stress, fear, and avoidance during or before social interactions due to feelings of self-consciousness and a fear of being judged by strangers or peers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that forces the affected to relive an intense physical or emotional threat or injury in dreams, flashbacks, or memories. Difficulty sleeping, outbursts, emotional withdrawal, or a heightened startle response are common symptoms.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is diagnosed when sufferers experience obsessive thoughts, an irrational fear of contamination that provoke compulsive acts, such as handwashing, to alleviate anxiety.
Separation anxiety disorder occurs during childhood and is characterized by excessive anxiety related to the separation from parents or those who serve in parental roles.
Selective mutism consists of a failure to speak in certain situations, like school or work, even if the person can speak in more familiar settings, like at home or with family.
Substance induced anxiety disorder occurs when someone experiences intense anxiety or panic as a direct result of taking drugs, medications, or after being exposed to toxic substances. Withdrawal can also cause this anxiety disorder.
It is important to note that while these anxiety disorders do occur and can be diagnosed, it is possible to experience other kinds of disorders not listed that fall in other categories, or include symptoms of two or more anxiety disorders.
How Anxiety Affects the Body
From headaches to bodily injury, Anxiety can manifest in various ways throughout the body.
While anxiety can take its toll mentally, its physical effects can be just as taxing. Understanding physical ailments as symptoms of anxiety can be a major break through for finding peace and health and treating the root causes of your pains.
The NHS says that generalized anxiety disorder can have a number of physical symptoms, including:
- irregular heartbeat
- muscle aches
- shortness of breath
- dry mouth
- stomach ache
- excessive sweating
- pins and needles
In addition, gastrointestinal issues are a common problem many anxiety sufferers face. About 10% to 20% of Americans have one of the two most common functional digestive disorders — IBS and functional dyspepsia (upset stomach). In addition, a 2007 New Zealand study of subjects with gastroenteritis (inflammation of the digestive tract) found an association between high anxiety levels and the development of IBS following a bowel infection.
Over excitement or nerves disrupt the regulation of digestion. Abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation are common symptoms, though nausea and vomiting can be chronic and difficult to manage.
Anxiety can also cause increased body weight, high blood pressure, and higher levels of cholesterol. While these symptoms are often due to negative lifestyle choices due to anxiety, it is still unclear what the cause behind high co-morbidity. Though, Anxiety.org states that research has suggested that changes in stress hormones, autonomic responses, and heightened systemic inflammation can be leading causes for negative health outcomes.
Skin conditions can also erupt due to excess anxiety. Eczema flare-ups can be common, along with rashes, hives, or pimples. Extra cortisol in the bloodstream during stressful events which dulls the body's natural defenses. This can turn a perfume, a lotion, or a particular fabric into an irritant, causing dermatological reactions.
Weird enough, there is also evidence to suggest that anxiety can make you cold, negatively affect your core temperature, making you shiver, or lose feeling in extremities.
Anne Marie Albano, PhD, an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, says that anxiety can alter blood flow in the body. “When you’re anxious, your blood flow is redirected away from your extremities and toward your larger organs in your torso,” says Albano.
The University of Michigan also lists “Trembling or shaking, sweating or chills” as symptoms of anxiety, meaning feeling cold can definitely be an indication when your body is in distress from an overactive anxiety response.
Treatment Options for Anxiety
Not only is there hope for anxiety sufferers, most can live happy and healthy lives when given correct treatment.
Psychotherapy and pharmaceutical treatments are available for individuals who suffer from anxiety and have been shown to be effective in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety on the mind and body.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is useful as a first-line treatment option for GAD and panic disorders. In CBT, patients find ways of behaving, reacting, and thinking to certain anxious feelings that can be attributed to panic attacks.
Doctors may also prescribe medications to help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Common medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), both of which are commonly prescribed to treat depression.
Beta-blockers are another kind of prescription medication which can help control rapid heart rates during and after an anxiety attack. Benzodiazepines, a sensitive medication with addictive properties, is powerfully effective in decreasing panic attacks. However, tolerance and dependence can occur.
Pharmaceutical treatments are not for everyone. Some respond better to “talk therapy” rather than continued use of medications due to their sometimes uncomfortable side effects.
So, what’s next?
Now that you know how anxiety affects your health, assess your mental state. Life is tough. And it is okay to feel bogged down from time to time. But if you feel overly anxious or become overwhelmed easily, it is important to talk to a healthcare professional to discuss the right treatment for you and your condition. It is possible to get back control over your mind and body.