Anxiety and Your Body: Understanding the Facts

girl battling anxiety, sitting at a window looking out

As defined by Oxford Medicine, anxiety refers to multiple mental and physiological phenomena. This can include a person’s conscious state of worry over a future unwanted event or fear of an actual situation. Anxiety affects nearly 40 million adults in the US alone.

Fear, stress, and anxiety are normal emotions that we all occasionally experience. As part of normal life. We may feel anxious when facing an exam at school, a job interview, or even before coming to a crucial decision. People with anxiety disorders, however, have constant, intense, and excessive worry about everyday situations. It’s a worry that does not go away and often gets worse over time. It can be overwhelming, and it can interfere with daily activities.

Anxiety and Your Body

girl sitting against the wall with her head in her hands

Anxiety is generally described as recurrent episodes of abrupt feelings of intense terror or worry that reach a peak within minutes.

The medical community has concluded that when a person is anxious, the brain sends signals to other parts of the body. The body interprets those signals and prepares the fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response. This response causes a physiological reaction triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either stay or run away from a threat. After this signal, the body responds by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, which many specialists describe as stress hormones.

If not treated correctly, long-term anxiety can negatively affect your central nervous system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, immune system, and digestive system.

Central Nervous System

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In the long run, anxiety can cause your brain to release stress hormones—such as cortisol and adrenaline—on a regular basis. This can boost the frequency of symptoms such as migraines, dizziness, and depression. Long-term exposure to stress hormones can be harmful to your physical health.

Respiratory System

During moments of anxiety, a person may hyperventilate. Hyperventilation causes the lungs to take in more oxygen and transport it around the body faster than usual. When this happens, people can feel like they are out of breath and experience symptoms such as dizziness, feeling faint, lightheadedness, tingling, and weakness.

Cardiovascular System

Anxiety disorders can cause severe changes to heart rate, variation in the circulation of blood, palpitations, and chest pain. You could also have an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Long-term anxiety is not good for your heart or cardiovascular system. Some studies conclude that anxiety increases the risk of a coronary event.

Immune System

When anxiety prolongs over time, and when stress doesn’t pass, your body never gets the signal to return to normal functioning. Cortisol turns off aspects of the immune system that fight infections, weakening the body’s immune response. People with chronic anxiety disorders may be vulnerable to viral infections, such as the common cold and the flu, or other frequent illnesses. Moreover, if you have anxiety, your regular vaccines may not work as well.

Digestive System

Some studies suggest that there is a strong connection between anxiety and the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS causes vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive issues. Cortisol blocks digestion, a process that the body considers nonessential in a fight or flight situation. As adrenaline reduces blood flow and relaxes the stomach muscles, a person with anxiety may experience nausea and diarrhea.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Luckily, anxiety is highly treatable. To make a diagnosis, a physician will evaluate symptoms and check for any underlying conditions that may be triggering the anxiety, ask detail questions about your symptoms and medical history, and order lab tests if a medical condition is suspected. Treatment is based on how significantly your anxiety disorder affects your daily life. Doctors may recommend a combination of the following:

  • Medication: Several types of drugs are used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, including antidepressants, buspirone, or benzodiazepine. Discuss with your doctor the advantages, risks, and possible side effects.
  • Therapy: It requires working with a therapist to reduce the symptoms of your anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most efficient for generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Changes in your lifestyle: Implementing lifestyle changes also can make a difference. Make sleep a priority, avoid alcohol and drugs, eat healthily, and use relaxation techniques.
  • Exercise: Practicing exercise regularly can be a powerful stress reducer. It may lift your mood and help you stay healthy. It is highly recommended that you start slowly and progressively increase the amount and intensity of your exercises.

Understanding anxiety and how it affects your body can be the first step to reducing your symptoms. If you experience anxiety, educate yourself on the facts and seek help. Talk to your doctor and be honest about what your experiencing.

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About the Author

Dawna is a mom of two young kids, puppy lover, ice cream lover, chocolate lover, and lover of any ice cream with chunks of chocolate in it. She is the author of seven books, a business owner, certified health coach, motivational speaker, and creator of the 5-Day Detox and the 14-Day Clean-Eating Program. Dawna appears regularly on local and national television. She has appeared on the Today show, Martha, MSNBC, HSN, and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna is a highly sought-after speaker and has done speaking engagements for Chobani, Disney, American Heart Association, Mass Mutual, Wharton Business School, Women’s Entertainment Television, PGA Tour, Super Bowl Leadership Forum, Susan G. Komen, and many more.
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