Everyone has felt the effects of anxiety. A sudden and unexpected clap of lightening, giving a speech before a crowd, or being involved in a minor car wreck can provoke our body’s natural response to situations that feel or are threatening. During these situations, your heart will be pounding, you break out in a sweat and muscles tense up. As the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenalin flood your body preparing you to fight or flight, blood flow will be diverted to areas of your body helping you accomplish this if need be. While anxiety can be unpleasant, once the threat is over, you generally go back to feeling normal within time. Experiencing anxiety is considered to be a normal, healthy adaptive response designed to keep you safe.
But today, we are no longer running away from predatory animals creating high levels of anxiety. Today, our stressors are more psychological in nature – stressful jobs, money worries, or family and relationship concerns. These triggers, not only lead to anxiety, but anxiety that often fails to go away completely and therefore becomes chronic. Chronic anxiety affects up to 40 million Americans living with an anxiety disorder. They have the physical symptoms of anxiety but instead of going away once the threat is over, their heightened anxiety response never quite calms down. Think of a car stuck in high idle – the engine is running too fast but it’s not in gear.
We know chronic, long-term anxiety takes a toll on mental health. But in time, your physical health will suffer too risking your health and well-being. Here’s a look at what can happen:
- Heart effects – When you are anxious, your heart will be pumping out more blood at a faster rate. This helps blood get to the areas of the body needed to respond to the threat it perceives you’re experiencing. Usually, once the threat is over, this response goes back to normal. But if you have chronic anxiety, your heart rate stays elevated, increasing your risk for a heart attack, stroke, or heart disease.
- High Blood Pressure – When feeling anxious, your heart pumps out more blood, causing blood pressure to rise. It’s not that anxiety causes high blood pressure – it’s the repeated episodes of the fight-flight response which can contribute to high blood pressure problems. Having chronic high blood pressure, in and of itself, can lead to serious damage to your heart, brain, and kidneys while also increasing your risk of stroke.
- Stomach and Gastrointestinal problems – For some who have chronic anxiety, gastrointestinal issues can be a side effect. Diarrhea, stomach aches, and nausea are common symptoms of ongoing anxiety. A 2013 study found people who lived with chronic anxiety had higher degrees of ulcers than those who did not and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found those with anxiety are more likely to experience irritable bowel syndrome.
- Asthma and Breathing problems – Feeling anxious can result in rapid breathing and tightening in your airways. This phenomenon has been shown in several studies linking chronic anxiety with increased rates of asthma. For example, a 2005 study found individuals diagnosed with panic disorder were six times more likely to develop asthma than those without anxiety.
- Reduced Immune System functioning – Living with continual anxiety results in your immune system being suppressed leaving you vulnerable to viruses such as colds. Research has shown those who are anxious are more prone to colds and minor illnesses due to a weakened immune system. When the body experiences anxiety, this triggers the release of stress hormones causing a variety of changes in how the immune system responds.
- Chronic Muscle Tension – Most of us know too well how our muscles tighten and tense due to anxiety. And if that anxiety is long-term, our muscles have little chance to fully relax leading to chronic muscle tension. There is also a strong correlation between anxiety and tension headaches and migraines. Even dental health can suffer if anxiety is leading to tooth grinding from clenched teeth.
- Weight Gain – Stress eating is a common issue for many and especially so for anyone with chronic anxiety. As part of the anxiety response, cravings for chocolate and other sugary carbohydrates increase. These “comfort foods” are sought out since they release the feel-good hormone called serotonin. Serotonin provides temporary relief but also leads to frequent and repeated cravings for these not-so-healthy foods. Eventually, stress eating results in excess calories and weight gain. To make matters worse, every time you feel anxious, cortisol is released which can lead to increased storage of fat in the body.
- Insomnia – Sufferers of chronic anxiety often find it difficult to fall asleep. Poor sleep can lead to a host of other maladies such as heart disease, stroke, a weakened immune system, impaired judgement, and including the onset or increase in anxiety disorders themselves.
- Spikes in Blood Sugar – During the fight-or-flight response, your body will release the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. This response also involves the liver releasing stored glucose or blood sugar into the bloodstream to provide your body with a boost of energy. Once the emergency has passed, your body will absorb the extra blood sugar. But, repeated increases in blood sugar over time can increase the risk of your developing type 2 diabetes.
Smart Ways to Cope with Anxiety
Here are several ways to deal better with anxiety:
- Remember, you can’t control everything. Change what you can and let the rest take its course.
- Exercise – it’s a great way to relieve tension and help you feel relaxed.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine which can make anxiety symptoms worse.
- Fight the temptation to turn to alcohol or unprescribed drugs for relief. They will only make things worse in the long run.
- Educate yourself about anxiety disorders.
- Try stress management techniques.
- Ask your healthcare provider for help in dealing with anxiety.
Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911.