Physical Symptoms and Side Effects of Anxiety
Anxiety is the mind’s natural reaction to situations that it perceives as dangerous or stressful. This means that anxiety is normal, and unless you are superhuman, you have definitely been in situations that made you feel anxious.
Ordinarily, anxiety passes quickly once a person gets out of the situation they perceived as dangerous or stressful.
Sometimes, however, a person might continue feeling anxious for extended periods of time, even when there is no obvious source of anxiety.
In such cases, the anxiety might become too much that it interferes with the person’s ability to function normally and carry out their day to day activities.
When this happens, their anxiety moves from being a normal reaction and becomes an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are pretty common. Actually, they are the most common type of mental disorder in the world.
When people hear the term anxiety disorder, what usually comes to mind is the effect of the anxiety on the mental state of the person suffering from the anxiety disorder.
What many do not realize, however, is that anxiety has a huge effect on the body as well.
ANXIETY AFFECTS MORE THAN THE MIND
Someone suffering from an anxiety disorder will experience symptoms such as excessive worrying, extreme nervousness, a feeling of agitation, restlessness, a deep conviction that something bad is about to happen, difficulty concentrating, extreme irritability, the desire to avoid social situations, and so on. All these symptoms are related to your mental state.
However, these are not the only symptoms of anxiety. In many cases, anxiety disorders are also accompanied by physical symptoms.
Most people do not associate these physical symptoms with anxiety, since they assume that anxiety only affects the mind.
While the results are inconclusive, various studies suggest that anxiety develops in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. This is the same part of the brain that is responsible for managing our emotional responses.
Whenever you experience anxiety, your mind assumes that you are in a dangerous situation, and therefore, the amygdala triggers the fight or flight response, whose objective is to prepare your body to either deal with the threat or flee from it.
This is the part of your nervous system that is in charge of involuntary processes like your heart rate, breathing, digestion, and so on when you are in dangerous or stressful situations. The sympathetic nervous system triggers a ton of other changes in your body in preparation for action.
Normally, your body remains in this aroused state for just a short time, and once your mind perceives that you are no longer in danger, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, and your body cools down and goes back to its normal state.
For someone with chronic anxiety, however, the body remains in this aroused state for extended periods of time, which is not healthy for the body. Being in this aroused state perpetually is what causes many of the physical symptoms of anxiety.
EFFECTS OF ANXIETY ON THE BODY
Some of the effects of anxiety on your body include:
Breathing and Respiratory Changes
We have already seen that when one is undergoing a period of anxiety, the fight or flight response kicks in. One of the effects of this is that your breathing rate increases in a bid to supply more oxygen to your blood.
As a result, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, something known as hyperventilation. You might also feel like you are not getting enough air, resulting in a need to gasp for breath.
For some people, anxiety might lead to a feeling of tightness around their throat, while others feel like they have something stuck in their throat.
This feeling is referred to as globus sensation, and it usually makes it hard for someone to breathe or swallow something. While the causes of this feeling are yet to be established, it can make your anxiety feel worse.
As a result of the breathing and respiratory changes caused by anxiety, people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at a high risk of getting hospitalized as a result of complications arising from their anxiety. Anxiety can also exacerbate the symptoms for people suffering from asthma.
Increased Heart Rate
In a bid to make sure oxygen gets to your muscles quickly, the fight or flight response will also lead to an increase in your heart rate.
Aside from the increased heart rate, you might also experience chest pain and palpitations.
These changes in in your cardiovascular system might put you at an increased risk of heart diseases and high blood pressure. For those who already have heart disease, anxiety can lead to increased risk of heart attacks.
When your fight or flight response is triggered as a result of your anxiety, the body responds by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into your system. In the short term, these hormones can actually improve your immunity.
For someone suffering from chronic anxiety, however, the body doesn’t get the signal that the threat is gone and that it can switch off the fight or flight response. As a result, the stress hormones continue being produced in your body even when you don’t need them. This excessive production of stress hormones can leave your immune system weakened.
As a result, people suffering from anxiety are usually more vulnerable to frequent illnesses and viral infections such as the flu, common cold, and so on. Regular vaccines are also less effective among people who are suffering from anxiety.
Headache and Dizziness
People suffering from chronic anxiety also tend to experience regular headaches and dizziness.
This is usually caused by two things. First, when someone is anxious and stressed, the amygdala triggers the release of stress hormones into your nervous system. A constant flood of these stress hormones can lead to increased frequency of headaches and dizziness.
Second, when someone is suffering from chronic anxiety, their mind is constantly filled with worry and fear.
They are constantly dreaming up worst cases scenarios, thinking of everything that might go wrong, worrying about what might happen when things go wrong, and so on. This constant barrage of worrying thoughts can also lead to increased frequency of headaches and dizziness.
Changes in Digestive Function
Once cortisol is released into your body during the fight or flight reaction, one of its purposes it to block processes that the body doesn’t consider to be essential in helping you fight or flee from the perceived threat. Digestion is one of the processes that the body doesn’t consider to be essential in a fight or flight situation.
During anxiety episodes, cortisol blocks the flow of blood to the digestive system.
The flood of adrenaline in the body might also lead to a relaxation of the stomach muscles. As a result, someone undergoing an anxiety episode might feel like their stomach is churning.
They might also experience loss of appetite, diarrhea, and nausea.
Some studies even suggest that there is a link between stress, anxiety and depression and digestive diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Another study also found that among patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, 30-40% also report suffering from anxiety or depression.
Anxiety episodes can also lead to an increased need to pass urine. This is especially common in people suffering from phobias.
While scientists are yet to establish the relationship between anxiety and the need to urinate, there are suggestions that this reaction is also caused by the fight or flight response, since it is easier to fight or flee when your bladder is empty.
Constant Fatigue and Exhaustion
Fatigue and exhaustion is another common physical symptom of an anxiety disorder. For some, the exhaustion is chronic, while for others, it only occurs following an anxiety attack. Two factors have been used to explain the link between anxiety and fatigue.
First, when you are experiencing anxiety, the stress hormones released into your body put your on high alert and prepare your muscles for action. Being in this highly aroused state can be extremely draining, hence the exhaustion. Second, people with anxiety have a hard time sleeping, which can also lead to the constant exhaustion and fatigue.
That said, it’s good to note that fatigue can be caused by many other medical conditions. Therefore, fatigue alone should not be used as a basis for diagnosing an anxiety disorder. It should only be seen as a symptom of anxiety if it accompanied by other symptoms.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a lot of people suffering from anxiety usually have trouble falling asleep.
Even when they do, the sleep is usually restless and unsatisfying. It is thought that trouble sleeping among people with anxiety is caused by the high levels of stress hormones in the body.
Since these hormones are supposed to make the body prepare for action, their presence in high levels can make it difficult for someone to relax enough and sleep.
In addition, anxiety is usually accompanied by a lot of thoughts and worry, which can also make it difficult to sleep well.
However, the relationship between sleep and anxiety is a complicated one, since sleeping problems have also been shown to contribute to anxiety.
Muscle Ache and Tension
One of the changes caused in your body by the fight or flight response is an increase in muscle tension as your body gets ready for action. Keeping your muscles in this state of tension for extended periods of time can easily lead to muscle aches.
A lot of people suffering from anxiety disorders report feeling unrelenting pains and aches in their shoulders, the neck, the back, and the jaw muscles. The tension in the jaws might sometimes cause them to constantly grind their teeth.
These muscle aches and pains persist even when there is no obvious threat, and sometimes, it might take the administration of relaxation medications or application of relaxation techniques for the aches to subside.
When the fight or flight response is activated, the body directs most of the blood to the muscles, where a lot of oxygen is needed.
To do this, some of the blood vessels in your skin narrow down in a process that is known as vasoconstriction. This diversion of blood from the vessels near the skin leads to an increase in body temperature, and some people might even experience hot flashes.
In a bid to cool you down, your body may produce a lot of sweat. Sometimes, this reaction might be too effective in cooling you down, making you feel cold.
The surge of hormones in your body when you are feeling anxious might also result in shaking and trembling, especially in the limbs. Sometimes, this is normal.
For instance, a lot of people might find themselves trembling before a scary presentation or an important meeting. For people with anxiety, however, this might happen even when there is no obvious trigger.
Cold Extremities and Light Headedness
Activation of the fight or flight response results in the need to provide the muscles with as much oxygen as possible. To do this, the body diverts blood flow from most of the body to the large muscles, the heart, and the lungs.
As a result of reduced blood flow, someone undergoing an anxiety episode might experience cold extremities – cold fingers, feet, hands, and toes. The reduced flow of blood to the brain might also lead to a feeling of light headedness.
The diversion of blood from the non-essential parts of the body might also lead to a tingling sensation on the skin in areas like the face, hands, feet, fingers, and so on.
Spots and Acne
People suffering from anxiety disorders might also develop spots and acne. There are several reasons why this happens. First, the increased production of stress hormone leads to an increase in the amount of oil produced by the skin. Second, we have already seen that anxiety can lead to lots of sweating, which in turn clogs the pores on your skin.
Finally, people tend to feel fidgety during anxiety episodes, which increases the likelihood of touching the skin on your face, neck and shoulders. By so doing, you transfer dirt from your hands onto your skin. All these factors combined increase the likelihood of developing spots and acne.
High Blood Sugar
The release of stress hormones into your body also leads to an increase in the levels of sugar in your blood. The reason behind this is that your body is trying to provide your muscles with instant fuel to help you deal with the dangerous situation. Normally, once the threat has been neutralized, the body triggers the absorption of this extra sugar from the blood.
For someone suffering from anxiety, however, the body doesn’t receive the signal that the threat has been neutralized, and therefore, the excess sugar remains in the blood for too long, increasing the risk of diseases like diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and kidney disease.
Anxiety has also been shown to contribute to weight gain. Studies show that high levels of cortisol in the body lead to an increased need to eat foods that have a high calorie content.
In addition, when someone with anxiety eats high calorie foods, the spike in blood sugar might lead to a slight improvement in their anxiety symptoms, leading to the perception that these foods are good at helping them deal with their anxiety.
This, of course, leads them to eat more of these foods. Over time, this increased consumption of high calorie foods leads to weight gain.
Anxiety can also lead to sexual problems and decreased libido. Among men, the activation of the fight or flight hormone can lead to a short term increase in the production of testosterone, which can lead to a short term increase in sexual appetite.
Over time, however, the high levels of cortisol in your body can decrease your sexual appetite. In addition, excessive worrying will also reduce the production of testosterone, leading to decreased libido and reduced production of sperm.
For women, the constant worry that accompanies anxiety disorders can make you tired and distracted, thus making you less interested in sex.
The high levels of cortisol in your body can also lead to reduced appetite for sex. The high levels of stress that come with anxiety can also lead to irregular periods, increased menstrual pain and cramping, increased bloating during your menstruation, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Anxiety disorders can also affect a woman’s fertility.
LIFESTYLE CHANGES TO HELP YOU DEAL WITH ANXIETY
While chronic anxiety can interfere with your day to day life and affect your physical wellbeing, the good news is that it is possible to lower your anxiety and minimize some of these symptoms through some lifestyle changes. Some of these changes include:
- Regular exercise: Exercising on a regular basis can help reduce your levels of stress and anxiety. Additionally, exercising can also help boost your immune system, which might have been compromised as a result of your anxiety disorder. Try and get at least 30 minutes of exercise a couple of times every week.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet: We have already seen that anxiety can lead to a craving for fatty, sugar rich foods, which can in turn lead to weight gain. To avoid this, it is important to create a habit of healthy eating. When healthy eating is an ingrained habit, you are less likely to give in to these cravings. Healthy diets have also been shown to be useful in lowering anxiety levels.
- Reduce consumption of caffeine: Substances like caffeine and other stimulants trigger the release of adrenaline and can make your anxiety worse, and therefore, it is advisable to reduce their consumption and if possible, eliminate them from your diet completely.
- Set aside worrying time: Someone with anxiety can easily find themselves worrying about something for most of their waking time. To avoid this, it is advisable to set aside some time each day, say 15 to 30 minutes, as worrying time. During this time, you should allow yourself to think about all the worries and fears troubling you. Once this time is over, however, make a commitment to yourself that you’ll not think about these fears again till your next worrying session.
- Learn relaxation techniques: We saw that chronic anxiety keeps the body in the fight or flight state for extended periods, something that has a negative impact on your health. To deal with this, you can try various relaxation techniques. These techniques calm down your mind and send a signal to your body that the perceived threat has passed, thus allowing your body to turn off the fight or flight reaction.
- Meditation: Very often, chronic anxiety occurs as a result of a person getting stuck with their negative thoughts and fears, keeping the body in a constant state of high alert. Meditation, on the other hand, requires you to clear your mind of all thoughts and focus on what is happening at present. This can help you get unstuck from your fears and worries. Meditation has also been shown to help reduce the levels of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
- Maintain a strong social network: Loneliness and isolation can lead to increased stress and make it harder for you to deal with your anxiety. Therefore, if you know that you are predisposed to suffering from anxiety, it is advisable to maintain a strong social network of people you can talk to whenever you are going through tough times or periods of anxiety.
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
While the lifestyle changes discussed above can help you keep your anxiety levels manageable, if you regularly experience the physical symptoms discussed in this article, or if it gets to a point where you anxiety is making it difficult for you to carry out your day to day tasks, it is time to seek professional help.
Once you talk to your doctor, he or she will conduct an exam to determine the cause of your anxiety and the kind of anxiety you are going through. From there, they will then recommend treatment options such as therapy or medication.
While most people are aware of the effects of anxiety on mental health, relatively few are aware that anxiety can also lead to physical symptoms.
This means that there are people who experience some of these symptoms without being aware that what they are going through is a result of anxiety.
Left untreated, anxiety can even lead to serious health problems, such as the risk of heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and so on.
Therefore, if you notice a combination of the physical symptoms discussed above, you should visit your doctor and have them examine you for anxiety disorder.
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