For people who are unfamiliar with anxiety and its effects on the body, it may seem like something that’s just “all your head.” But long-time sufferers of anxiety know that it can manifest in some very tangible ways, causing physical symptoms like shortness of breath, heart palpitations, lightheadedness, and stomach pains. A lot of times, an anxiety attack can make a person feel extremely fatigued – as if they had just run a marathon!
But why does the body react this way in the first place? And how can you cope when it happens to you?
Here, we talk about the effects of anxiety on the body, from the short-term effects of a panic attack, to some of the long-term effects that stay with people affected by anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is actually a natural response to stress. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, scientists look at anxiety as an adaptive trait.
Think about our earliest ancestors. Early humans had to face the very real and imminent threat of being eaten by a predator, like a lion or a bear. To keep us alive, our brains developed a survival instinct that prepares the body to stay and face the threat or to flee for cover. This is the fight-or-flight response – an instantaneous but incredibly complex chain reaction that puts the body at peak performance level.
So what actually happens when this stress response is activated? The amygdala – the emotional center of the brain – produces adrenaline, a hormone that can make the heart beat faster, speed up respiration, tense muscles, and make pupils dilate. While all of this is happening, you could also experience stomach pains, dry mouth, and a decrease in libido. Essentially, what the brain is doing is preparing the muscles and organs needed to fight or run away, while shutting down other systems to conserve energy.
As humans evolved, our stressors changed. While we no longer have to worry about lions or bears, we do have to worry about things like a job interview, a mortgage payment, or a sick loved one. Even low blood sugar levels can trigger the release of stress hormones. And in a rapidly changing world, we’re constantly having to deal with uncertainty too.
But the fight-or-flight reaction still remains, whether we like it or not. So when we experience an overwhelming level of stress, or if we come face-to-face with the things we have associated with fear, our bodies can go into full on panic mode – otherwise known as a panic attack. These short bursts of fear, usually lasting between five and 20 minutes, are usually so intense that people who have never experienced one before fear for their lives.
How do you know when the fight-or-flight response has kicked in? Here are 5 physical effects of anxiety on the body:
During a panic attack, your heart races, your chest hurts, and you feel like you can’t breathe. Stress hormones make your heart beat faster because your blood flow increases to ensure that your big muscles are primed for action.
Unfortunately, many people who haven’t experienced a panic attack before tend to assume that they’re actually having a heart attack. As a result, the worrier is left in a cycle of fear.
As your heart rate goes up, your body makes sure that you have enough oxygen too – thus causing you to take more, shallower breaths.
However, breathing too quickly has its downside – hyperventilation. This can actually increase your symptoms of anxiety, as you end up taking in more carbon dioxide than you normally should.
Once you sense this is happening, try to practice breathing deeply and slowly from your belly instead. When you slow down your breathing, you get more oxygen back into your body and regain a sense of control again.
Have you ever been so nervous that you had to go through the bathroom? Unbeknownst to many, there is a direct link between the brain and the digestive system called the gut-brain axis. This connection between the Central Nervous System and the Enteric Nervous System is the reason why fear and anxiety can trigger symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pains.
This is also why a lot of people with anxiety disorders also suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a disorder of the large intestine that is aggravated by stress.
One of the physical symptoms of a panic attack is muscle tension. While this is helpful in guarding the body against injuries, it can eventually lead to a lot of pain, especially around the jaw, neck, shoulders, and back. All this tension in the neck and jaw can also lead to headaches.
When your body goes into panic mode, it goes on overdrive, sending all sorts of signals and causing a myriad of physical symptoms. After you experience a panic attack, you will likely feel extremely tired, as if you need to lie down or even sleep for a few hours.
Eventually, this feeling will wear off and you will go back to normal. However, if you suffer from chronic stress or an anxiety disorder, your body could be in a constant state of fear and alertness, causing you to feel tired all the time. This is why anxiety sufferers tend to battle with insomnia as well.
While the stress hormones are helpful in life-or-death situations, it’s a different story for those suffering from anxiety disorders. People with severe anxiety tend to have overly sensitive amygdalas. They can perceive mundane or everyday experiences as huge threats – their amygdala goes haywire, hijacking the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and leaving them in a near constant state of anxiety.
Anxiety disorders include:
Other disorders closely related to anxiety include substance use disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People who suffer from OCD tend to obsess over recurring, intrusive thoughts. To cope, they develop certain rituals which they believe can keep those thoughts at bay, from hand washing to counting. PTSD, on the other hand, is a disorder brought on by experiencing or witnessing traumatic life experiences like abuse and death. Symptoms may include nightmares and recurring memories of the event.
When a person battles with chronic anxiety, they end up experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety far more than they normally should. This eventually takes its toll on the body, leading to a spate of health problems in the long run. This includes:
Despite all this, anxiety is one of the most treatable mental health disorders in the world. Through therapy, medication, and healthier routines, people with chronic anxiety can gain control of their mental health once again and keep their physical symptoms at bay.
If you or someone you know is grappling with anxiety and depression, substance abuse, OCD, or other mental health conditions, remember that help is available. At Transformations at Mending Fences, there is a range of treatment options waiting for you. Contact us today to find out more!