How Does Anxiety Affect the Body?

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Update Date 26/06/2020 . 4 mins read
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Anxiety is a natural response to stress, and can be useful for helping you recognize and protect yourself from a dangerous situation. But when it is persistent and extreme, it could be an anxiety disorder. And the effects of anxiety run deeper. Not only can it affect your mental health and daily life, it can manifest with physical symptoms.

Some common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach upset
  • Increased sweating
  • Fatigue or energy loss
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Muscle tension 

These symptoms usually resolve on their own as the body calms down and puts a halt on the fight-or-flight response. However, in some cases, anxiety becomes a long-term condition.

The constant feeling of fear and dread can make it difficult to perform normal tasks and strain social interactions. Chronic anxiety negatively affects quality of life, and may require specialized medical treatment.

Unlike normal feelings of anxiety, anxiety disorders are a serious psychiatric concern because they manifest as repeated or persistent episodes.

Left untreated, the condition may worsen and lead to destructive behavior such as substance abuse and self-harm. Studies are also finding evidence that untreated anxiety may be affecting the different body systems and be the true cause for some chronic illnesses.

What are the Effects of Anxiety on the Body?

Effects of Anxiety on The Immune System

When the body is stressed, it releases a hormone called cortisol to suppress inflammation. In the short term, this gives the body a temporary immunity boost. However, anxiety and depression cause high levels of inflammation.

Repetitive experience of stress, as in anxiety disorders, means the body has to constantly manage the inflammation and overworks the immune system.

The body’s lymphocyte count is also reduced by high stress levels. These white blood cells protect the body against infections, so fewer numbers means the body has less defense against infections.

Not only does this mean a higher chance of contracting disease, it can also compromise the body’s ability to heal and repair itself, resulting in a longer recovery period.

Effects of Anxiety on Cardiovascular Health

Does your heart feel like it’s racing and pounding against your chest when you are anxious? The sensation is from the body’s attempt to increase blood flow to the brain. This stress response aids in raising mental acuity and alertness.

Researchers are still studying the link between anxiety and heart disease but at least one study shows that patients with anxiety disorder were 59% more likely to experience a heart attack than those who didn’t.

The abrupt changes in blood flow can also cause the development of high blood pressure and irregular heart rates like tachycardia (rapid heart rate). Inflammation also weakens the artery linings and makes it more prone to coronary plaque buildup.

Effects of Anxiety on Gastrointestinal Health

In order to promote circulation to the brain, the body actually redirects the blood flow from the lower organs, including the digestive tract. This puts a temporary halt on normal functions, which can result in problems like stomach ache and diarrhea.

It is thought that a gut-brain link exists, and that anxiety plays an important role in gastrointestinal issues.

This is because of how it affects gut bacteria and the production of stomach acids. This can lead to chronic problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and stomach ulcers.

Effects of Anxiety on The Musculoskeletal System

Nausea and acid reflux are stress responses you experience in the digestive tract, but the cause actually lies in muscle tension. This is also the same reason your hands might shake or your knees may buckle when you are feeling anxious.

Muscles tend to contract in an effort to minimize the injury and pain that may result from a stressful situation. After episodes caused by anxiety disorder, however, the muscles may fail to relax. Apart from lower back pain, this can also cause tension headaches and migraines.

Effects of Anxiety on The Respiratory System

Anxiety can trigger an asthma attack as well as worsen its symptoms. The shortness of breath that is commonly associated with experiencing anxiety is also a result of breathing airways becoming inflamed and constricted, just as what happens during an asthmatic episode. 

For those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), there is the additional challenge of the loss of lung elasticity. The lungs cannot store air at full capacity nor can it expel it completely, resulting in inefficient breathing. As a result, anxiety is fairly common in those with COPD.

Effects of Anxiety on The Reproductive System

When you are occupied by feelings of fear and impending doom, sex is probably the farthest thing from your mind. Anxiety can have lasting effects on both sex drive and physical arousal.

Apart from causing a lack of interest in sexual activity, men may experience erectile dysfunction and women may experience vaginal dryness or reduced lubrication. In some cases, women may also experience pain during intercourse.

Anxiety can also have a negative effect on female fertility. Challenges to conceiving is a source of stress, but researchers are also studying if anxiety is the cause for poor pregnancy rates. However, there has been no evidence for the popular notion that stress can cause miscarriages.

Though anxiety is considered a mental health issue, the many ways it can affect normal body functions make it a medical concern that should be addressed seriously and holistically.

Beyond treating the symptoms of anxiety disorders, it is important to be on the lookout for other physical manifestations. Disclosure of anxiety-related diagnoses can also be helpful in treating other illnesses.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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