Published On: May 18, 2018
Reviewed On: May 4, 2018
Updated On: November 2, 2023
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Renée Fabian is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor. She has written for Talkspace, The Washington Post, and Healthline, among others, and is currently an editor at The Mighty. Renée holds a master's degree in journalism and will complete a master's degree in psychology in fall 2019.