Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental illness in the United States, affecting around 40 million adults — almost one in five people. Characterized by constant, overwhelming feelings of worry and fear, these disorders disrupt people’s ability to function at work or school, interfere with personal and professional relationships, and affect their quality of life.
While perhaps most recognized for behavioral changes, anxiety disorders can also have physical manifestations. To better understand these, let’s first find out what the body goes through during normal anxiety.
Anxiety can be beneficial
When an individual faces potentially harmful or worrying triggers such as a person threatening to stab you with a knife, feelings of anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival. The brain prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response, causing the following symptoms:
#1. Pounding heart or increased heart rate
A faster heart rate makes it easier to fight or flee since the increased blood flow brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
#2. Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
When your body responds to danger, you breathe rapidly to allow your lungs to take in more oxygen and transport it around the body quickly. This can make you feel as if you can’t catch your breath or like you’re suffocating or desperate for air.
#3. Tensed muscles
Your muscles tense up to prepare you to fight or get away from danger quickly.
After the threat has passed, the heart, lungs, muscles, and the rest of the body relaxes.
Anxiety can be a problem
When a person feels high levels of anxiety on most days for at least six months, it may be a sign of a medical disorder. When you have an anxiety disorder, your body is in constant fight-or-flight mode even when there is no threat or it has already subsided. This can then have negative and serious effects on your body:
#1. Dizziness and nausea
In the short term, anxiety increases your breathing and heart rate, concentrating blood flow to your brain, where you need it. If it gets too intense, however, you might start to feel lightheaded and nauseous.
#2. Aching muscles
Muscles that are constantly tense can result in pain. That’s why many people with anxiety disorders report feelings of tightness on their necks, backs, or shoulders. Some even feel muscle tension all the way up to their heads, leading to headaches and migraines.
#3. Chronic fatigue
When the body is constantly on high alert, it continues producing stress hormones, which can be very physically overwhelming and draining.
#4. Sleeping problems
People with anxiety disorders have a tough time falling asleep, staying asleep, are restless during the night, or wake up feeling drained. The elevated levels of stress hormones rev up your body (for action), making it hard for sufferers to relax and get a good night’s sleep. The racing thoughts that can come with anxiety don’t lend themselves to peaceful dreams, either.
#5. Stomach pain and other gastrointestinal (GI) disorders
“Anxiety really hits the GI system hard,” says Mona Potter, MD, medical director at McLean Anxiety Mastery Program in Boston. People with anxiety may notice general stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, or other kinds of GI distress, she explains. That’s because the stress hormone cortisol blocks processes that the body considers nonessential in a fight-or-flight situation. One of these blocked processes is digestion. Also, adrenaline reduces blood flow and relaxes the stomach muscles, which can result in diarrhea.
Anxiety disorders require treatment
Although there are simple yet effective tips to manage anxiety, anxiety disorders are serious conditions that normally need a combination of psychotherapy and medications. At Meridian Psychiatric Partners, LLC, we tailor a treatment plan for patients and determine the best course of therapy as it progresses. Don’t hesitate to consult with our mental health professionals. We serve clients in the Chicago, Evanston, Lake Forest, and surrounding areas.