Anxiety is the most common mental health illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). And it comes in all shapes and sizes: panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, social anxiety, separation anxiety, specific phobias, and so on. What’s more, the stress that accompanies anxiety disorders can interfere with your day-to-day life and also lead to serious health complications, the Mayo Clinic says. Here are 13 ways anxiety may be hurting your health right now. And for more on the well-being of your mind, This Is the No. 1 Mental Health Mistake You’re Making Right Now.
Shortness of breath and hyperventilation are common symptoms of anxiety that are concerning, but can usually be managed effectively. People with preexisting respiratory conditions, however, may face serious challenges related to anxiety. When layered on top of asthma or emphysema, stress can lead to fatal outcomes, such as asthma attacks. And for more on your body’s ability to breathe, check out 17 Warning Signs Your Lungs Are Trying to Send You.
Even our digestive systems can’t escape the reach of stress. In part, this is due to a close connection between our brains and our guts, as demonstrated when we get butterflies just by thinking about an important event. Anxiety can cause abdominal cramping, inflammation, ulcers and eventually lead to more consuming conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. And for more about your body’s digestive system, This Is What Your Indigestion Is Trying to Tell You.
In response to anxiety, our bodies release “stress hormones,” which have the ability to affect weight gain in a number of ways. For instance, they increase blood sugar levels, and when gone unused, excess glucose in the body may begin to build up as fat. As stimulants, stress hormones also draw heavily on the body’s energy resources. This in turn creates an increased demand for fuel, especially high calorie fuels like sugar and fat.
Anxiety is a well-known cause of tension headaches and migraines. Stress can be both a cause and a symptom of headaches, but “if you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you may have a higher likelihood of developing migraine headaches” Michael Korzi, a senior physician assistant at Gateway Medical Group–UPMC in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told UPMC HealthBeat. Surprisingly, everyday stresses are more likely to trigger headaches than major life events.
Which came first: the insomnia or the anxiety? While anxiety is a very common symptom of sleep deprivation, the stress and worries associated with anxiety are also recognized as causes of many sleep disorders. Some people even become anxious about the idea of sleep. “Sleep dread is extremely common,” Matthew Edlund, MD, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, FL, told WebMD. The result can be a ruthless cycle that leaves a person physically and mentally exhausted and puts the health of both their body and mind at risk. And to see where people are getting the least amount of rest, This Is the Most Sleep-Deprived State in the U.S.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, and Ronald Glaser, PhD, were early pioneers in psychoneuroimmunology, the study of how our mental state affects our physical health. Their research on the well-being of college students during exams paved the way for decades of studies that show how chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system. For example, we now know that long-term anxiety may slow the healing of wounds, weaken your body’s response to vaccines and increase our risk of contracting diseases. And for other things that compromise your body’s defenses, check out 13 Surprising Things That Can Affect Your Immune System.
We typically think of anxiety as an ailment of our minds, not our bodies, but the tension caused by anxiety can have very physical symptoms, according to Harvard Health. Stress may lead to targeted pain like headaches and sore muscles as well as an all-consuming condition like fibromyalgia, which results in chronic pain throughout the body.
Diabetes is a condition in which the body can’t make enough insulin or can’t use the insulin it does make, resulting in abnormally high blood sugar levels. When anxious, our bodies release hormones that also elevate blood sugar levels. Studies show that prolonged periods of stress may contribute to the onset of diabetes and can potentially make existing conditions worse. And for more helpful information delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Heart disease is the leading killer of Americans, and stress is linked to a number of factors that increase our risk of heart disease. For example, anxiety can increase blood pressure, raise cholesterol levels, and cause the buildup of plaque in our arteries. Anxiety may also lead to unhealthy behaviors like overeating, smoking, and heavy drinking—all of which can contribute to heart disease.
Not surprisingly, anxiety can have a negative impact on the sex drives of both men and women. Stress can impact our physical experience during sex too, though, including lower arousal levels and increased pain. For men in particular, anxiety may contribute to erectile dysfunction and impotence. “If you have a ‘busy mind’ and are distracted during sex, it’s going to be harder to focus on your arousal, the pleasurable sensations, or orgasm.” Rachel Needle, PsyD, a sex therapist and licensed psychologist at the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida, told Self in 2017.
An inability to conceive can cause severe tension for women and couples. Anxiety may actually be the cause of infertility in some cases, though this is debated within the scientific community. What we do know is that stress can cause a woman’s menstrual cycle to fluctuate or even stop temporarily, which may greatly affect her ability to become pregnant. Stress can also reduce sperm viability in men.
Following a highly stressful or emotional event, people can experience a temporary heart condition called broken heart syndrome. Symptoms include sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. “Its presentation isn’t subtle. People think they’re having a heart attack.” Lauren Gilstrap, MD, a cardiologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, told the American Institute of Stress. Even though Broken Heart Syndrome may feel like a heart attack, there’s actually no physical evidence of blocked arteries and the condition is usually treatable.
Though anxiety and depression are distinct conditions, they frequently occur together. “Being depressed often makes us anxious, and anxiety often makes us depressed,” Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, said in a statement. Shared symptoms include nervousness, irritability, and difficulty sleeping, and concentrating. Although neither disorder necessarily causes the other, many people who suffer from depression have a history of anxiety.