Knowing how anxiety affects the body is the first step in treating and managing the symptoms and related complications that can develop.
More than 40 million¹ U.S. adults are affected by anxiety each year, and there is a growing prevalence among younger generations. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to be properly informed about anxiety, so that you’re better equipped to deal with it.
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Anxiety disorders can cause an array of symptoms, from mental and emotional to physical. Since signs and severity vary from person to person, they can often be misdiagnosed as another condition or cause.
How anxiety affects the mind/brain:
Increased stress hormones in the brain, which can result in feelings of nervousness, anxiousness, and agitation
Inability to reason rationally
Hold onto negative thoughts and memories
Sense of impending doom or danger
How anxiety affects the body²:
It's common for a person suffering from anxiety to become so anxious that they don't realize the physical symptoms they're experiencing are a result of their anxiety. In times of immense distress, new physical symptoms can appear, causing someone with anxiety to become more stressed as they try to figure out whether the symptoms are caused by anxiety or another condition.
There are some quick and easy steps you can take to identify whether physical symptoms are caused by anxiety while reducing the severity of the symptoms in the process.
Harvard Medical School⁴ reports that the following steps have been shown to help identify anxiety-related physical symptoms:
Stop and assess
Relax your body or work it
The first step is to take a step back and assess the situation. Observe what is happening to your body, how it relates to your emotional state and the possibility that it is in response to an intense period of stress.
After assessing your situation and symptoms, distracting yourself from focusing on the symptoms can help ease their impact. Common practices include house chores, reading a book/magazine, watching funny videos, and running errands around town.
Another step in the right direction is doing a light exercise like running or a more calming routine like yoga and meditation to relax your body. Participating in physical activities can lighten the stress and tension you're experiencing.
When you become more aware of the possibility that anxiety is causing your symptoms, reassuring yourself that what you're experiencing isn't as terrifying as it seems can be helpful. Remind yourself that these symptoms will pass.
If these steps don't improve your quality of life when physical symptoms occur, consult your doctor for more insight into the cause.
Studies show that people diagnosed with common anxiety disorders like social anxiety, phobias, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder have a higher association with certain medical conditions.
For instance, a 2015 study⁵ published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research reported that patients with anxiety and depression symptoms are more likely to experience additional conditions such as:
In the study, patients diagnosed with anxiety disorder were interviewed and evaluated on the severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms they experienced and associated medical conditions. The study found that as the severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms increased, so did the odds of developing one or more of these conditions.
An additional study conducted in 2017⁶ confirmed these findings in the elderly population, adding that anxiety was associated with heart disease, depression was associated with asthma, and a combination of anxiety and depression contributed to persistent cough, asthma, hypertension, heart disease, vision problems, and gastrointestinal problems.
One of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it's 'all in your head'. In fact, anxiety is a very real and serious medical condition that requires regular management and treatment. When left untreated, anxiety can lead to more serious conditions that could have otherwise been reduced or prevented.
Common treatments for anxiety include psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and exposure therapy.
CBT is helpful for identifying the thoughts and actions that lead to damaging feelings so that you can work towards changing them.
Exposure therapy is a mixture of imagery, activities, and exercises focused on confronting and overcoming fears.
Other treatment options include prescription antidepressants to improve mood and decrease stress, beta-blockers to reduce physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, and anti-anxiety medication (benzodiazepines) to relieve panic and worry symptoms⁷. Medication options and mixtures vary from person to person and should be discussed with your doctor to find the right fit.
Self-care can be helpful in managing symptoms as well. The most beneficial practices include calming techniques, getting enough sleep, being physically active, and avoiding nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.
When experiencing new or reoccurring physical symptoms, remember:
Anxiety affects the body in many mental, emotional, and physical ways.
Take a moment to assess and observe your symptoms to identify the cause behind them.
Practice self-care in your daily routines and consult a doctor about medication or psychotherapy treatments if your quality of life declines.
Treat and manage your anxiety-related symptoms to prevent additional conditions from emerging as a result.
What is Anxiety and Depression? | Anxiety & Depression Association of America
What Anxiety Does to Your Body: 7 Common Physical Symptoms | Women's Health at Harrington
Recognizing and easing the physical symptoms of anxiety | Harvard Health Publishing
Anxiety Disorders | Cleveland Clinic
How Does Anxiety Affect the Brain? | StoneRidge
Anxiety disorders | Mayo Clinic