Anxiety: What is it and how does it affect the body?
Published 15 Mar 2021 • Updated 16 Mar 2021 • By Courtney Johnson
We all experience stress, worry, or feelings of anxiousness from time to time, and anxiety is a normal reaction to these feelings and can even be beneficial in certain situations. But when anxiety becomes chronic and develops into an anxiety disorder, it can take a toll on both our mental and physical health.
What are anxiety disorders? How do they affect the body? How can we treat the physical symptoms of anxiety?
We explain it all in our article!
What are anxiety and anxiety disorders?
Anxiety is a term used to describe a feeling of fear, nervousness, or worry. Occasional anxiety is normal and can be expected every now and again - we can experience it when facing problems at work, school, or before making an important decision. But when this anxiety becomes persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming and/or interferes with daily activities, it can be considered an anxiety disorder.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, anxiety disorders are among the most commonly occurring mental illnesses in the United Kingdom, affecting around 8.2 million adults in any given year. The term refers to a number of specific psychiatric conditions that involve extreme fear or worry, including:
- General anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder and panic attacks
- Separation anxiety
- Specific phobias
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
While the effect of anxiety on a person’s mental health is generally well known, the impact it can have on the rest of the body is less discussed.
Some of the most common physical symptoms include:
- Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
- Increased heart rate or pounding heart
- Shaking or trembling
- Stomach pain, nausea, or digestive issues
- Insomnia and other sleep problems (frequent waking, night sweats, etc.)
- Muscle pain or tension
- Fatigue or weakness
Other specific forms of anxiety may have additional physical symptoms, for example, during a panic attack a person may experience overheating or chills, as well as light-headedness or a feeling that they are choking.
Anxiety is a type of stress response, or the body’s way of responding to and coping with stress. The body often interprets stress as a “danger”, initiating a fight-or-flight response which triggers a number of bodily reactions. When confronted with danger, breathing may accelerate in order to move more oxygen through the body, which can prompt further anxiety or panic as the person feels as if they are not getting enough air.
The body also releases cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, and adrenaline (epinephrine), which both play a role in increasing blood flow, heart rate, and blood sugar levels as part of the fight-or-flight response.
Being in a constant state of stress, constantly releasing these hormones, and experiencing these symptoms over a sustained period of time can have long-term effects on your health.
What long-term effects can anxiety have on the body?
Anxiety can impact heart rate and blood circulation, often causing rapid heart rate, palpitations, and sometimes chest pain.
Long-term stress and chronic anxiety may have a negative impact on the cardiovascular system in the long-term, and a few studies have suggested that anxiety increased the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke in otherwise healthy people.
Anxiety can often cause breathing issues such as shortness of breath or hyperventilation, especially in the case of panic disorders or attacks.
For patients who already have a respiratory condition like asthma or COPD, there may be a higher risk of hospitalization due to anxiety-related complications. Anxiety can also exacerbate symptoms of both conditions.
Central nervous system
Chronic anxiety and stress causes the body and brain to release stress hormones to help the body cope, which can lead to increased occurrence of symptoms such as depression, headaches, and dizziness.
When the brain floods the nervous system with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol over a long period of time it disrupts many of the body’s processes and can cause wear-and-tear on the body. It has been also found to contribute to weight gain.
Anxiety can also cause digestive problems. During the stress response, cortisol helps to move blood flow to essential organs like the brain, limbs, and large muscles, away from nonessential organs or processes like the digestive tract.
As a result, a patient with anxiety may experience a number of digestive issues such as stomach aches, nausea, diarrhoea, or a churning stomach.
Research has suggested that there is a potential link between stress, anxiety disorders and the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). One study conducted in India found that 30-40% of participants with IBS also had an anxiety disorder or depression.
In the short term, anxiety can actually boost the immune system response through the release of hormones. However, long-term or chronic anxiety can have the opposite effect.
The cortisone released during the stress response suppresses aspects of the immune system that fight off bacteria and infections, effectively impairing the natural immune response. Thus, people with anxiety disorders are often more likely to catch the common cold, the flu and other infections.
How can we treat the physical symptoms of anxiety?
Because anxiety can have such a significant impact on health, it is important to seek help. While mild anxiety may improve on its own, chronic anxiety is lasting and may worsen with time.
Treatment for anxiety symptoms largely depends on the symptoms themselves and their severity. Anxiety is a highly treatable condition, so doctors may prescribe or recommend a combination of the following treatments:
- Therapy - especially cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Support groups
- Lifestyle changes
- Regular physical activity
- Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises
- Avoidance of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
- Proper sleep hygiene (consistent and regular bedtime, an appropriate sleep space, etc.)
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Share your thoughts and questions with the community in the comments below!
- What is Anxiety and Depression? - Anxiety & Depression Association of America
- Mental health statistics: Anxiety - Mental Health Foundation
- Anxiety Disorders - National Institute of Mental Health
- What Are Anxiety Disorders? - American Psychiatric Association
- What does anxiety feel like and how does it affect the body? - Medical News Today
- Risk Factors: Anxiety and Risk of Cardiac Events - US National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health
- Physical Symptoms of Anxiety: How Does It Feel? - Healthline
- Effects of Anxiety on the Body - Healthline
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