What does anxiety feel like, and how does it affect the body?
Anxiety can impact physical and mental health. It can affect the body in different ways, including the cardiovascular, urinary, digestive, and respiratory systems. A person with anxiety may feel nervous, restless, tense, or fearful.
While many people know about the effects of anxiety on mental health, fewer people are aware of the physical side effects.
This article discusses the most common physical symptoms and side effects of anxiety.
People with anxiety can experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms. The most common include:
- feeling nervous, tense, or fearful
- panic attacks
- a rapid heart rate
- fast breathing or hyperventilation
- difficulty concentrating
- sleep problems
- digestive issues
- feeling too cold or too hot
- chest pain
Some anxiety disorders have additional symptoms. For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also causes:
- obsessive thoughts
- compulsive behaviors that aim to reduce the anxiety caused by the thoughts
- periods of temporary relief, which follow the compulsive behaviors
Learn more about OCD here.
Effects of anxiety on the body
The amygdala, an area of the brain that manages emotional responses, plays a crucial role in developing feelings of fear and anxiety.
When a person feels anxious, stressed, or frightened, the brain signals other body parts. The signals communicate that the body should prepare to fight or flee.
The body responds, for example, by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, which many describe as stress hormones.
Anxiety can significantly affect the body, and long-term anxiety increases the risk of developing chronic physical conditions. Some of the ways that anxiety affects the body include:
Breathing and respiratory changes
During periods of anxiety, a person’s breathing may become rapid and shallow, which is called hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation allows the lungs to take in more oxygen and quickly transport it around the body. Extra oxygen helps the body prepare to fight or flee.
Hyperventilation can make people feel like they are not getting enough oxygen, and they may gasp for breath. This can worsen hyperventilation and its symptoms, which include:
- feeling faint
Learn more about anxiety and its impact on breathing here.
Cardiovascular system response
Anxiety can cause changes to the heart rate and blood circulation. A faster heart rate makes it easier to flee or fight, while increased blood flow brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
When blood vessels narrow, this is called vasoconstriction, and it can affect body temperature. People often experience hot flashes as a result of vasoconstriction. In response, the body sweats to cool down. This can sometimes be too effective and make a person feel cold.
Long-term anxiety may not be good for the cardiovascular system and heart health. Some studies suggest that anxiety increases the risk of heart diseases in otherwise healthy people.
Learn more about anxiety and heart rate changes here.
Impaired immune function
In the short term, anxiety boosts the immune system’s responses. However, prolonged anxiety and stress can have the opposite effect.
Cortisol prevents the release of substances that cause inflammation, and it turns off aspects of the immune system that fight infections, impairing the body’s natural immune response.
People with chronic anxiety disorders may be more likely to get the common cold, the flu, and other types of infections.
Changes in digestive function
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.
As a result, a person with anxiety may experience nausea, diarrhea, and a feeling that the stomach is churning. They may also lose their appetite.
Research suggests that stress and depression are linked to several digestive diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Studies show anxiety and depression are common in people with IBS.
Learn more about IBS here.
Anxiety and stress can increase the need to urinate or increase symptoms of urinary incontinence.
A 2016 study found that people with an overactive bladder (OAB) diagnosis were more likely to experience anxiety than control groups. Researchers also found that people with OAB who have anxiety typically had more severe incontinence symptoms than those without anxiety.
Complications and long-term effects
Having anxiety can lead to long-term effects. People with anxiety may experience:
- digestive issues
- chronic pain conditions
- difficulties with school, work, or socialization
- a loss of interest in sex
- substance misuse disorders
- suicidal thoughts
If a person knows someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question, “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If a person or someone they know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255.
During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711, then 800-273-8255.
Click here for more links and local resources.
What is an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety describes a group of disorders that cause worry, nervousness, and fear. These feelings of anxiety interfere with everyday life and are out of proportion to the triggering object or event.
In some cases, people cannot identify a trigger and feel anxious for what seems like no reason.
While people may experience mild anxiety in some situations, such as before an important presentation or meeting, persistent anxiety can interfere with a person’s well-being.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders represent the most common mental illness in the United States and affect 40 million adults every year.
While these disorders respond well to treatment, only 36.9% of people with an anxiety disorder receive treatment.
Causes and risk factors
Both environmental and genetic factors may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders:
- traumatic life experiences
- genetic traits
- medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or chronic pain conditions
- substance misuse
- ongoing stress about work, finances, or home life
- having other mental health disorders
A doctor will diagnose one of several anxiety disorders in a person.
Types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder: This involves excessive anxiety for no apparent reason that lasts for 6 months or longer.
- Social anxiety: A person with social anxiety will feel fear of judgment or humiliation in social situations.
- Separation anxiety: This form of anxiety includes fear of being away from home or family.
- Phobia: This involves fear of a specific activity, object, or situation.
- Hypochondriasis: A person will receive this diagnosis if they experience persistent fear of having serious health issues.
- OCD: This involves recurring thoughts and compulsions that lead to repeated, compulsory mental or physical acts.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder: This involves severe anxiety after a traumatic event.
Diagnosis will depend on the type of anxiety disorder a person appears to have. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) provides criteria that can help a healthcare professional identify the issues and decide on appropriate treatment.
Anxiety is often treatable, and doctors usually recommend a combination of some of the following:
- support groups
- lifestyle changes involving physical activity and meditation
The doctor may suggest counseling, either one-on-one or in a group. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one strategy that can help a person see events and experiences differently.
Learn more about cognitive behavioral therapy here.
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the U.S. It causes both physical and psychological symptoms, which can be very distressing.
These include, among others:
- a quickened heart rate
- digestive dysfunction
- impairments to immune response
- changes in breathing
Long-term anxiety increases the risk of physical illnesses and other mental health conditions, such as depression.
However, anxiety can respond very well to treatment. Most people who receive treatment recover well and enjoy a good quality of life.