While many people experience the feeling of anxiety, another story is told when we explore how anxiety impacts the body and what effects it can have. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S. It’s estimated to affect 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, which is about 18% of the population. Scarier than that, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), only about 1/3 of people suffering from anxiety disorders seek treatment.
Your Body’s Physical Response To Anxiety
When a person is stressed or anxious, the body responds by releasing several different hormones including cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline into the blood stream. This causes something commonly referred to as a “fight or flight” response.
According to an article in the NY Times, when this wave of hormones is released, several reactions occur. One of the most noticeable things is that the heart begins to beat faster and that rapid breathing occurs to let in more oxygen to the body. Meanwhile, blood pressure increases and the spleen produces more red and white blood cells allowing oxygen to be transported faster around the body. This allows important organs like the muscles, lungs and brain be “ready” for any situation. Also, the liver produces more glucose, which is used for extra energy. The thyroid helps speed up your metabolism. Once the stressful situation or perceived threat of danger passes, the body returns to normal functionality.
Unfortunately, some people feel anxious and stressed chronically. This can dangerous because when this occurs, the body doesn’t receive the signal to start returning to normal functionality, which in the long term can have negative consequences on many body systems, according to the American Psychological Association.
Long-Term Complications of Anxiety
Muscular Skeletal System
When the body is undergoing stress, muscles begin to tense, as a way to protect against injury. When the body is in a chronic state of stress and anxiety, there’s no way for them to return to their natural state. Muscle tension in the neck, back and shoulders are known to cause things like tension headaches and migraines.
As mentioned earlier, when the body releases the flood of hormones, breathing becomes rapid in attempt to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood stream. For many people, the breathing will subside once the stress passes. But for people in a constant state of stress, this rapid breathing can cause hyperventilation and panic attacks. Also anxiety can trigger asthma attacks in people who suffer from the condition.
Anxiety and chronic stress are two key factors in the risk of heart-related conditions. The elevated heart rate, high levels of stress hormones and the raise in blood pressure can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke. Also, arteries usually dilate to help blood flow quickly throughout the body, and in the long term can cause cardiovascular inflammation in the arteries which can lead to a heart attack.
The endocrine system’s main job is to release hormones through the body. As discussed, when anxious or stressed, the body releases several different hormones into the blood stream. Also mentioned was the fact that the liver produces more glucose to help give an extra boost of energy. This can be dangerous for people who are diabetic because they will not be able to reabsorb the remaining blood sugar back into the body causing their blood sugar levels to spike. People who are at risk of becoming diabetic should attempt to keep their stress under control.
Anxiety and stress can either increase or decrease your appetite. It can also increase heartburn and acid reflux, stomach pain, nausea and sometimes vomiting. Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to ulcers. According to Harvard Medical School, there might be a connection between anxiety disorders and the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS can cause vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. This can be dangerous because the body might not be able to absorb important nutrients.
In males, the constant stream of stress hormones impacts the production of testosterone, sperm production and may cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.
In females, high levels of stress hormones can throw off the menstrual cycle causing delayed or miss periods as well as painful periods. It also causes PMS symptoms to be more severe especially mood swings. Women who are going through menopause and are suffering from anxiety and stress tend to have more severe hot flashes.
The Immune System
Chronic stress and anxiety occur when stress hormones like cortisol remain circulating in the blood for long periods of time. According to this article, the body might start to develop a resistance to these hormones causing the body to actually produce more. The production of these hormones causes chronic inflammation, which in turn can cause auto-immune conditions where the body attacks itself thinking it’s a threat. Auto-immune diseases include fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Also, cortisol suppresses lymphocytes, which help kill invading organisms like bacteria and viruses. With a lowered amount of lymphocytes, the body is at increased risk of infection and disease and recovery times are longer.
The Nervous System
The Nervous System works in tandem with the endocrine system to help release the stress hormones. Once the brain perceives there’s a danger, whether it be something life threatening or something as mundane like an overflow or work emails, it sends a single down the nerves through the spinal cord to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. The hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary gland to produce cortisol.
According to this article, raised levels of cortisol for prolonged periods can decrease the number of brain cells. Cortisol travels into the brain and binds with receptors located on neurons. The neurons begin to misfire and produce an overabundance of calcium located in the cell membrane. When the cell membrane becomes overloaded with calcium, the cell bursts and dies. When neurons die in the hippocampus (the part of brain which is responsible for memory) there’s a chance that memory can be impacted.
Other Ways Stress and Anxiety Affect The Body
Anxiety and Sleep
This article in the Huffington Post, states that stress and anxiety impacts sleep in several ways. When you are stress or anxious the mind has a hard time of “shutting off” causing low quality sleep, sleeping for shorter amounts of time, and in some cases insomnia.
According to the ADAA, around 16% of people who suffer from anxiety have reported that they have trouble sleeping affecting their sleep pattern at least one night a week. Their survey reported that 75% of adults whose sleep is affected by stress or anxiety say that their lack of sleep has lead to an increase in their stress and anxiety.
Anxiety and Skin
Stress hormones including stimulate the sebaceous glands, which in turn increases the skin’s oil production, which can cause pimples, acne, and other skin conditions. Stress also causes skin conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea, and eczema to become worse and can cause other skin rashes like hives and fever blisters to develop, according to Web MD. Skin conditions can also cause stress making it a vicious cycle.
Anxiety and Hair
According to Calm Clinic, stress can cause three different conditions that lead to hair loss. The first is Alopecia Areata, a sudden loss of large clumps of hair in areas around your scalp. The second is the most common condition that people with anxiety suffer from, Telogen Effluvium, where more hairs than normal prepare to fall out. The third is Trichotillomania, a habitual condition caused by stress and anxiety where the person pulls out hairs without realizing it. Although there haven’t been that many studies, according to Web MD, there’s a link between stress, a change in hair follicle biochemistry.
Ways To Reduce Stress and Relieve Anxiety
There are several ways to reduce stress. According to Healthline, listening to music has been known to lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol. Laughter is commonly referred to as the best medicine because it releases endorphins that improve mood and decrease levels of cortisol and adrenaline. But these are short term solutions for a long term problem.
One longer term solution for anxiety disorders is medication. According to Help Guide, the most common medication are called Benzodiazepines, which slow down the central nervous system and reducing brain activity. They can be found in Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Valium (diazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam). But medication is not a cure for anxiety and just treats the symptoms. Once the regimen of medication is stopped anxiety symptoms will reappear. Also, anxiety medication has strong side effects including drowsiness, lack of energy, clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion, disorientation, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, blurred or double vision, and memory loss. It is also to note that only a doctor or a psychiatrist can prescribe medication and only under the case that they feel it is absolutely necessary to help deal with persistent anxiety disorders.
The most effective form of treatment for anxiety disorders is therapy because it helps figure out the underlying causes of worries, fears and stress. Through therapy thosewho suffer from anxiety will learn a new set of tools to help them relax, give them better coping skills, as well as help their brains not perceive mundane tasks as stressful. There are a few different types of therapy that can help people with anxiety disorders; cognitive therapy (examines how negative thoughts, or cognitions, contribute to anxiety) and behavioral therapy (examines how you behave and react in situations that trigger anxiety).
If you are suffering from anxiety and are thinking of seeking treatment, South Bay Counseling LCSW PC offers anxiety therapy for their patients on Long Island. Give us a call at (631) 264-0058 or fill out our appointment request form to schedule an appointment.