What does anxiety feel like and how does it affect the body?

Anxiety has the ability to impair physical and mental health. There are consequences on both the mind and the body in the short and long term.

Although many people know about the mental health effects of anxiety, less people are aware of the physical side effects, which may include digestive problems and an increased risk of infection. Anxiety can also alter cardiovascular, urinary, and respiratory systems function.

We address the most common physical signs and side-effects of anxiety in this article.

Symptoms

Excessive worry and nervousness are characteristics of anxiety.
Excessive worry and nervousness are characteristics of anxiety.

People with anxiety can experience a variety of symptoms, both physical and psychological. The most frequent includes:

  • feeling nervous, tense, or fearful
  • restlessness
  • panic attacks, in severe cases
  • a rapid heart rate
  • fast breathing, or hyperventilation
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • sleep problems
  • nausea
  • digestive issues
  • feeling too cold or too hot
  • chest pain

Some anxiety disorders have additional symptoms. For example, OCD also causes:

  • obsessive thoughts
  • compulsive behaviors that aim to reduce the anxiety caused by the thoughts
  • periods of temporary relief, which follow the compulsive behaviors

Effects of anxiety on the body

Dizzy lady
Dizziness and lightheadedness are potential symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety may have a profound effect on the body and the risk of developing chronic physical problems rises with long-term anxiety.

The medical community believes anxiety is growing within the amygdala, a brain region that regulates emotional responses.

When an individual is nervous, depressed or afraid, the brain sends signals to other parts of the body. The signals express that the body should be preparing to fight or escape.

For example, the body responds by releasing adrenaline and cortisol which is defined by many as stress hormones.

The response to fight or flight is useful when facing an offensive person, but it is less useful when preparing for a job interview or giving a talk. It’s also not safe to continue in the long term with this response.

Some of the ways that anxiety affects the body include:

Breathing and respiratory changes

During periods of anxiety a person can breathe rapidly and shallowly, which is called hyperventilation.

Hyperventilation allows the lungs to take in more oxygen and rapidly move it throughout the body. Extra oxygen is helping the body get ready to fight or escape.

Hyperventilation may cause people to feel like they do not get enough oxygen and that they can struggle for breath. This can intensify hyperventilation and its symptoms, including:

  • dizziness
  • feeling faint
  • lightheadedness
  • tingling
  • weakness

Cardiovascular system response

Anxiety can cause changes in heart rate and blood circulation all over the body.

A higher heart rate makes fleeing or fighting easier, while increased blood flow provides fresh oxygen and nutrients to muscles.

It is called vasoconstriction as the blood vessels close, which can affect body temperature. People also experience vasoconstriction triggering hot flashes.

The body sweats to cool down, in reaction. It can be too powerful at times, which can make a person feel cold.

Long-term anxiety can not be good for the heart health and cardiovascular system. Some reports indicate anxiety raises the risk of heart failure in people who otherwise are healthy.

Impaired immune function

Throughout the short term, fear is improving the responses of the immune system. Prolonged anxiety, however, may have the opposite effect.

Cortisol prevents the release of inflammatory substances, and it shuts off parts of the immune system that battle infections, impairing the body’s normal immune response.

Those with chronic anxiety disorders can have a better risk of catching the common cold, flu and other forms of infection.

Changes in digestive function

Cortisol prevents pathways that are considered non-essential by the body in a situation of fight or flight.

One of these blocked processes is digestion. Adrenaline also reduces blood flow, which relaxes the muscles of the stomach.

As a result , a person with anxiety can feel nausea , diarrhea and a sense of churning in the stomach. They could be losing their appetite, too.

Some evidence indicates that stress and depression, including irritable bowel syndrome ( IBS), are related to many digestive diseases.

One study, from outpatients at a Mumbai gastroenterology clinic, recorded that 30–40 percent of IBS participants also had anxiety or depression.

Urinary response

Anxiety and stress may make urinating more important and this reaction is more common in people with phobia.

The urge to urinate or lack of control over urination may have an evolutionary basis, because an empty bladder makes it easier to flee.

The link between anxiety and an increased urinary urge remains unclear, however.

Complications and long-term effects

Insomnia is a potential complication of anxiety.
Insomnia is a potential complication of anxiety.

Managing anxiety may have adverse long-term consequences. People suffering from anxiety can experience:

  • depression
  • digestive issues
  • insomnia
  • chronic pain conditions
  • difficulties with school, work, or socializing
  • a loss of interest in sex
  • substance abuse disorders
  • suicidal thoughts

Causes and risk factors

The cause of anxiety is still to be determined by the medical community, but several factors can contribute to its development. Possible causes and risk factors include:

  • traumatic life experiences
  • genetic traits
  • medical conditions, such as heart diseasediabetes, or chronic pain conditions
  • medication use
  • sex, as females are more likely to experience anxiety than males
  • substance abuse
  • ongoing stress about work, finances, or home life
  • having other mental health disorders

Diagnosis

A doctor may examine symptoms and make a diagnosis and may search for any underlying medical problems that can cause the anxiety.

Diagnosis may depend on what sort of anxiety disorder an patient tends to have. The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) lays out guidelines that will better define the problems and agree on suitable treatment.

Treatment

Anxiety is highly treatable, and doctors usually recommend a combination of some of the following:

  • medication
  • therapy
  • support groups
  • lifestyle changes involving physical activity and meditation

The doctor can recommend counselling, either individually or as a group. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one technique which can help a person see various events and experiences.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety describes a group of illnesses causing anxiety, nervousness and fear. Such anxiety symptoms interfere with daily life and are out of proportion to the triggering cause or event.

People are unable to recognise a cause in certain situations, and are nervous for what seems like no reason.

Whereas in certain cases, such as before an important presentation or meeting, mild anxiety can be expected, chronic anxiety can interfere with a person’s well-being.

Anxiety disorders constitute the most prevalent mental condition in the United States and affect 40 million people in the country each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

While these disorders respond well to treatment, treatment is received by only 36.9 per cent of people with an anxiety disorder.

Types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder — excessive anxiety for no apparent reason that lasts for 6 months or longer
  • Social anxiety — fear of judgment or humiliation in social situations
  • Separation anxiety — fear of being away from home or family
  • Phobia — fear of a specific activity, object, or situation
  • Hypochondriasis — persistent fear of having serious health issues
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — recurring thoughts that cause specific behaviors
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder — severe anxiety after a traumatic event or events

Outlook

Anxiety is the most common mental-health condition in the United States. It induces both psychological and physical effects, and it can be very distressing.

Long-term anxiety raises the risk of physical illnesses and other disorders of mental health, including depression.

Anxiety, however, can respond to therapy very well. Most people seeking care are doing well and experiencing good quality of life.

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