What Anxiety Could be Doing to Your Body
The Impact of Chronic Anxiety on the Human Body
In a prehistoric forest, your many-times-great-grandmother is searching for food. Suddenly, she hears a noise – a wild animal is about to attack her. Her body goes into a sort of autopilot. Hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are released, which cause important changes. Muscles tense, braced for pain or impact. Her heart and respiration rates increase. Pushed forward by all of these changes, your ancestor rushes out of the forest, putting distance and foliage between herself and the sneaky predator until she’s safe.
When this ‘fight or flight’ reaction is short-term, it can be life-saving. But if you suffer from chronic stress or anxiety, the chemical changes never stop, and that can take a toll on your body in a number of ways. Here’s how nearly every part you can be affected by chronic anxiety:
Chronic muscle tension and pain
Everyone has probably had a few times in their life when they felt stressed or afraid, and that manifested itself in a stiff neck, headache, or other pain. If your anxiety is ongoing, the pain can be, too. Constantly tensed muscles can lead to issues like frequent headaches and migraines, or back pain. It can also make a painful injury feel even worse and take longer to go away.
It’s often said that the brain and the digestive tract share a special connection. Think about how you might feel butterflies in your stomach if you’re excited or how some performers are physically ill before a show. In temporary situations like this, that’s fine, but when the agitation never lets up, your digestive tract will suffer. For one thing, you may find yourself eating more or less than you usually would. This can have many consequences, including acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion, constipation, and/or diarrhea. Even if you’re eating normally, you may still experience symptoms like these, and they may evolve into a condition like ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which studies have found is very closely linked to anxiety.
Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
The brain’s natural stress response causes your blood pressure and heart rate to increase. This is perfect for an emergency burst of energy, but in the long term, it can be incredibly damaging to your body. Heart disease the leading cause of death for Australians – not to mention worldwide. Chronic anxiety raises your chances of developing a heart condition or aggravating your current symptoms. And as you may imagine, it’s also a cause of high blood pressure, which can lead to conditions like stroke, dementia, and kidney problems.
Sexual and reproductive problems
Anxiety can affect every part of the body – even parts we may sometimes say have a mind of their own. In fact, one of the common causes of erectile disfunction is anxiety. Another is substance abuse, which could be a coping mechanism. Women are also affected. Like our male counterparts, anxiety can mean a decreased libido. Anxiety can also lead to an irregular menstrual cycle, and more severe PMS or menopause symptoms. For women who are seeking to get pregnant, anxiety can has also been found to contribute to low fertility.
Stress causes us to breathe harder. For people battling chronic anxiety, that can bring on or worsen problems like asthma and panic attacks. The symptoms of respiratory conditions will be stronger.
The fight or flight response makes you focus on the problem at hand and how to get away from it. When you’re constantly in that mode, you may find you’re forgetful about everyday life details like appointments, pick-up times, passwords….
In addition to these other symptoms, chronic anxiety can manifest itself in a number of conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and panic disorder. Depression can also be caused by, or occur with, anxiety.
Not looking your best
Looks aren’t everything, but it’s worth noting that anxiety can even affect your appearance. Stress hormones and ‘coping’ mechanisms like drinking, smoking, or overeating can cause weight gain, hair loss, and flare-ups of acne or eczema, among other things.
Those little troublesome things
Those little annoyances in your daily life that may also be due to chronic anxiety, too - including dry mouth, sweating, restlessness, and fatigue.
What health issues do you currently suffer from? Could they be connected to your anxiety?
As this journalist perfectly puts it, stress is caused by outside sources, while anxiety comes from within. There are ways to change your life for the better, both externally and internally. Talking to a therapist is a great way to get started on making the positive changes you need to get mentally -and physically – healthy.