What physical problems cause anxiety?
9 Ways Anxiety Is Impacting Your Physical Health
The human brain and body are designed to handle one-off anxiety reactions like a champ. The body gets flooded with chemicals such as the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare you for a fight or flight response. Resources such as blood flow are diverted to areas of the body that prime us for action.
It’s common to feel keyed up during these moments, as heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension increase. As soon as the threat has passed, the chemicals discharge and we return back to a normal, balanced state. From this perspective ― tied to running away from predatory animals in the early days of human life ― anxiety is not only normal, it’s a healthy adaptive response designed to keep us safe.
Nowadays, anxiety still plays an important role, but more often than not our stressors are more psychological in nature ― think work, money, relationships. Our response to these triggers is still largely a physical one. As a result, chronic anxiety, particularly for the 40 million Americans who live with an anxiety disorder, means our heightened anxiety response never quite calms back down. And this wreaks havoc on our well-being. How?
“What we know is happening when people are getting those physical symptoms is that their body has gotten ratcheted up and then has lost its ability to calm back down,” psychologist Karen Cassiday told The Cut. “It’s kind of like a car being stuck in high idle where the engine is racing too fast, but it’s not in gear.”
With this in mind, here are nine ways anxiety impacts your physical health.
1. Heart Conditions
Part of the anxiety response requires the heart to pump out more blood faster, to get it to the areas of the body that need to respond to a threat. While this is generally reversible once trouble passes, for those with ongoing anxiety and stress, the heart continues operating at an elevated level. This can increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Two studies, including one conducted by Harvard Medical School and the Lown Cardiovascular Research Institute, found that “those suffering from an anxiety disorder were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those with no history of anxiety disorders.”
2. High Blood Pressure
Similar to anxiety-based heart concerns, as the heart works to pump more blood throughout the body, our blood pressure increases. While Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Sheldon G. Sheps is careful to emphasize that anxiety doesn’t cause hypertension per se, repeated spikes in our flight-flight response do contribute to regular high blood pressure. This can lead to heart, brain, and kidney damage, and increases the risk of strokes, among other health complications.
3. Asthma and Breathing Problems
A hallmark of anxiety and panic for many people includes rapid breathing and tightened airways. Because of this, several studies have shown a strong correlation between anxiety and asthma.
For example, a 20-year study whose results were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in 2005 found that those diagnosed with panic disorder were six times more likely to develop asthma than those without anxiety. In addition, Harvard reports that patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which impacts air flow to and from the lungs, were more likely to have frequent hospitalizations and more distress if they also had anxiety.
4. Stomach and Gastrointestinal Issues
Feeling nausea is another common symptom of anxiety. Therefore, it’s no surprise that ongoing anxiety with little relief can lead to stomach and gastrointestinal issues.
“Gastrointestinal issues, like diarrhea, stomach aches, nausea, and burping, are also fairly common symptoms of anxiety,” psychologist Crystal I. Lee told Bustle. “Anxiety affects your digestive system, which can lead to unpleasant issues.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that those with anxiety are more likely to experience irritable bowel syndrome, while a 2013 study published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology found a higher degree of diagnosed ulcers in patients who also lived with anxiety.
Anyone who’s ever been anxious about a test or a presentation the next day has likely experienced insomnia. With an anxiety disorder, the likelihood of sleep problems persisting grows exponentially, with the Mayo Clinic citing stress as the one of the top reasons people have trouble sleeping.
Not only does a chronic lack of sleep open the door for other potential health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, a weakened immune system, and impaired judgement, studies have shown that insomnia can also lead to the onset or increase in anxiety disorders themselves.
6. Blood Sugar Spikes
As the body releases the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine into the body during its flight-or-flight response, the liver produces more glucose, or blood sugar, to give the body a boost of energy. After the emergency passes, usually the body can simply absorb this extra blood sugar.
However, according to the American Psychological Association, the repeated increases in blood sugar can increase the risk for those predisposed to type 2 diabetes of getting the disease.
7. Decreased Immune System Functioning
As bodily resources are funneled into the need for immediate protection, the immune system may be temporarily suppressed. When anxiety causes this to happen again and again, we’re more likely to catch a virus, such as a cold, and we are unable to fight off existing infections as effectively.
“Research has shown that people who are anxious are more prone to colds and minor illnesses, because they have a weakened immune system,” John Hamilton, chief clinical outreach officer for Mountainside Treatment Center, told Bustle. “Anxiety can trigger a release of stress hormones, which cause a variety of changes in the way immune systems respond to threats.”
8. Weight Gain
Anxiety can trigger stress eating for many people. Those cravings for chocolate and other carbohydrates are linked the body’s need for increased calories as part of the anxiety response. “Comfort foods” also release the feel good chemical serotonin, which can give us a temporary spell of relief, causing us to go back over and over again to the cookie jar. But over time, the calories from chronic stress eating add up, and to make things worse, cortisol has been linked to an increased storage of fats in the body.
“More stress equals more cortisol equals higher appetite for junk food equals more belly fat,” Dr. Shawn M. Talbott, a nutritional biochemist, told WedMD.
9. Chronic Muscle Tension
Muscles tense up at the first sign of threat because we’re gathering strength to respond quickly, whether that’s to lash out, protect ourselves, or flee. When we’re anxious, more often than not, our muscles never have a chance to fully relax and we remain on guard all the time.
“People usually don’t associate aching muscles with anxiety, but it’s actually quite common,” Lee told Bustle. “Those with anxiety are prone to tensing their muscles (usually without even realizing it), which can lead to achy muscles or knots in muscles.”
In addition to tension and pain, there’s a strong correlation between anxiety and tension headaches and migraines. Even jaw and tooth pain from clenched teeth can lead to dental issues.
Seek Help if Your Anxiety or Related Pain is Uncontrollable
Anxiety may be a natural reaction to threat, but when it simply doesn’t go away or turns into an anxiety disorder, it impacts the well-being of our whole body. Our free anxiety screening can help you learn whether your symptoms are indicative of an anxiety disorder, so that you can seek the treatment you need to care for your body and mind.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, reach out for help. Your mind and body will thank you.
10 physical conditions that could be causing your anxiety
Anxiety symptoms may be giving you important clues about your health.
By Kim Easton-Smith Published: 03 April 2018
General Anxiety Disorder is a common mental health condition that’s typified by anxious feelings taking over, making it difficult to get on with ordinary life. Treatment is usually talking therapy, sometimes combined with medication.
NHS Choices lists numerous anxiety symptoms, including feelings of dread, sweating, shortness of breath, panic attacks, fatigue, irritability and trouble concentrating. But though anxiety is a medical condition in its own right, there can sometimes be a physical reason for your symptoms — and treating it can bring the anxious feelings to an end.
So if you think you have a problem with anxiety, it’s important not to self-diagnose. Instead, head to your GP to have any other causes ruled out first.
According to a group of doctors writing in the journal Psychiatric Times, there are six key systems in the body that can cause these anxiety-type symptoms. They are cardiorespiratory (heart and lung), neurological (brain), metabolic (body temperature and vital functions), chronic illness, digestive and endocrine (hormonal). Here’s a closer look at what these include:
1. Haywire hormones
Adrenal dysfunction happens when the adrenal glands, which produce our hormones, go wrong. When they produce the wrong amount of one or more of our hormones, it can cause fatigue, disorientation, increased heart rate and trouble concentrating — all typical anxiety symptoms.
2. Overactive thyroid
Similarly, your thyroid malfunctioning can have major effects. Symptoms for an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) described by the NHS match anxiety symptoms closely — a raised heart rate, which increases your breathing, causes you to sweat more and raises your body temperature — all of which can feel very much like a panic attack.
Sugar rushes and dips associated with badly-managed diabetes can cause panic-like symptoms, such as dizziness, breathlessness, sweating, chest pain and trembling. If you are diabetic, speak to your doctor about managing your condition and pay attention to how you feel at different times of day, for example before and after eating.
4. Heart disease, heart failure and heart attack
One of the biggest groups identified in the paper was heart and lung issues, but as anxiety symptoms include an increased heart and breathing rate — it’s not a surprising crossover. Pulmonary oedema (fluid build-up in the lungs) and pulmonary embolism (a blockage in the blood vessels of the lungs) are also linked to these symptoms. What’s reassuring though, is that if you’re young and healthy, these serious conditions are highly unlikely. These conditions can be easily ruled out with a full medical assessment.
5. Sleep apnea
Slightly more common, especially if you’re overweight or have other medical conditions. Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing for a few seconds while sleeping, which an starve your body and brain of oxygen. This can cause you to wake up feeling breathless, or with your heart racing.
If you’ve never had asthma you may associate the breathlessness with anxiety rather than adult-onset asthma, which can be treated with medication and inhalers.
7. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and digestive issues
Anxiety UK explains that anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) often go hand in hand and it can be difficult to separate which is the root cause. If it’s the IBS that’s causing anxiety and not the other way round, getting a handle on the physical symptoms can alleviate the mental ones.
Other anxiety symptoms such as fatigue and a dry mouth can instead be caused by stomach ulcers and dyspepsia (excess stomach acid), and tend to resolve entirely when these are treated.
8. Drugs and withdrawal
Mental health charity Mind explains that “a number of drugs — both prescription and recreational — can cause anxiety-like symptoms”.
As well as illegal drugs such as cocaine, speed and ecstasy, it adds that alcohol and nicotine, as well as prescription medicine including some painkillers and antidepressants are all potential anxiety-inducing substances.
All drugs have a different effect on every individual, so it’s hard to know how you’ll react. If you have any concerns that medicine you’ve been prescribed has increased your anxiety, you should speak to your GP. And if you take recreational drugs, try to be aware of how they affect you, because if they’re negatively affecting your mental health, it’s not worth it.
Depending on the drugs or medicines you’re taking, stopping cold turkey might make things worse, though, as physical withdrawal symptoms can closely mimic those of anxiety. Speak to your doctor about reducing your dose or referring you to a drug treatment centre. Frank has more information on support services you can refer yourself to.
9. Chronic illnesses
Anxiety symptoms are a long list, and many long term illnesses have symptoms that cross over. They can also change over time and with treatment, so when you feel differently, it can be alarming.
Inflammatory illnesses such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and others such as Huntington’s, MS and seizure disorders can all present anxiety-type symptoms. So it’s up to you and your specialist to pay attention to your body and work out what is the illness and what is not. Managing long term illness is difficult and worrying, so it’s also not unusual for patients to develop anxiety as a condition on top, but appropriate treatment, therapy and support can help you get back to an even keel.
10. Serious brain conditions
If your symptoms are neurological, such as a brain tumour or head trauma, it’s likely you’ll already be aware of it due to other symptoms.
But less extreme problems — vertigo, concussion and migraine — can also cause symptoms linked to anxiety such as dizziness, headaches and disorientation, so make sure you let your doctor know as these could indicate something more serious.
Like all medical symptoms, anxiety is your body telling you something’s wrong. Your doctor will consider any other symptoms you might have and your medical history to determine if you’re at risk of one of these physical conditions, or if your anxiety symptoms are just that — anxiety. Either way, treatment is available and can make a huge difference to your quality of life, so make sure you seek help.
Is a Hidden Medical Condition Causing Your Anxiety?
When anxiety surfaces for the first time in adulthood, an underlying medical problem may be the cause. A visit with your doctor to explore this possibility can help to uncover the reason for your newly anxious feelings.
Anxiety: A widespread problem
Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric problem, affecting over 20 million U.S. adults and children every year.
Because the physical symptoms often overshadow the psychological, and because medical conditions and anxiety often coexist, establishing a diagnosis can be difficult.
Your doctor may suspect an underlying medical condition if your exam and history reveal clues such as:
- You haven’t suffered from anxiety in the past
- No one in your family has had an anxiety/other mood disorder
- You’ve experienced no recent major life changes
- The anxiety came on recently and rapidly, versus gradually
- You seem less alert
- Your symptoms fluctuate a lot
- You’ve experienced disorientation or memory loss
- You’ve recently changed medications
- Your physical exam or vital signs are suddenly abnormal
- You can’t provide a clear history of your condition
- Anxiety surfaces later in life (anxiety disorders usually begin in childhood or early adulthood)
- You have multiple medical conditions
Possible medical reasons for anxiety
A useful mnemonic device, “THINC MED,” developed by Georgetown University psychiatrist Robert Hedeya, MD, helps doctors determine potential medical causes of anxiety:
T (tumors): Brain tumors cause a wide range of psychological symptoms, including anxiety, personality changes and hallucinations, along with physical symptoms. Adrenal gland tumors (pheochromocytomas) produce excess adrenaline, which can trigger anxiety, along with headache.
H (hormones): Thyroid problems are among the most common medical causes of anxiety, either because the gland is overactive (hyperthyroidism) or underactive (hypothyroidism). Parathyroid and adrenal gland conditions can trigger anxiety, too. (Other symptoms: restlessness, sleep problems, tremors, heat intolerance and weight loss.) The female hormone estrogen can also prompt anxiety when the menstrual cycle fluctuates and during menopause.
I (infectious diseases): Lyme disease from tick bite infections can trigger anxiety and other psychological symptoms. Untreated Strep infections can cause the neurological tics sometimes seen with anxiety disorders. Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can follow a viral infection, may trigger anxiety as well (along with progressive weakness, difficulty breathing and altered sensation).
N (nutrition): The symptoms of vitamin deficiency/overload, malabsorption and poor nutrition can mimic emotional disorders. For example, anxiety may be the first symptom of B12 deficiency. (Gastric bypass surgery and disorders of gut absorption increase this risk.)
C (central nervous system): Head trauma, even when mild, can trigger anxiety and other psychological symptoms. Anxiety is also seen with chronic or progressive neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, myasthenia gravis and Guillain-Barre.
M (miscellaneous): Any chronic disease or chronic pain condition can elicit anxiety as the illness progresses and impairs function. Unusual conditions, such as Wilson’s disease (a genetic disorder of copper metabolism) and porphyria (a disorder of blood metabolism), can cause anxiety and other psychological symptoms. Anxiety is also associated with food allergies; rheumatologic disorders like lupus; other connective tissue and inflammatory conditions; and fibromyalgia.
E (electrolyte abnormalities and environmental toxins): Many medical therapies can disturb your electrolytes, leading to anxiety. Anxiety and restlessness can also develop after long-term exposure to organophosphate insecticides.
D (drugs): Many over-the-counter and prescription drugs, herbal supplements, homeopathic remedies and food additives (particularly MSG) can cause anxiety. Excess caffeine can make many adults and children anxious — so be wary of “energy drinks” and “boosters.” Misuse of/withdrawal from alcohol and cocaine or other stimulants can provoke anxiety as well.
The bottom line
Because anxiety is linked to so many medical conditions, it’s important to have your primary care doctor evaluate it when it’s a new symptom for you.
It’s also worth a visit to your doctor if you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder but suspect an underlying medical cause.
Your doctor will work in partnership with you to uncover the cause and, ultimately, arrive at the best treatment for you.