If you're one of the 18.1 percent of Americans who are dealing with an anxiety disorder, you don't need me to tell you that it pretty much constantly impacts your life in unexpected ways; I'm sure you're familiar with the way that anxiety can turn all sorts of tiny everyday endeavors — from going out with friends to telling the barista what you want in your coffee — into an energy-draining Herculean effort. But what you may not know is that anxiety can impact your physical health, too. In fact, there's hardly a bodily system that good ol' anxiety doesn't have in its grasp; our digestive systems, immune systems, and even our lungs can start functioning differently after you've been dealing with anxiety for a long while.
How does a mental health issue begin to mess with our physical health? Well, anxiety isn't just an abstract state of being; anxiety is a physical process, and it also has physical symptoms. Since anxiety is related to the fight-or-flight response, when our brains send out the message that there's a threat on the loose, "neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense, and blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain," according to Harvard Health Publications — basically, the same physical reactions that our ancient ancestors experienced when they realized that there miiiiiiiight be a giant lion coming their way across the savanna. Over time, regularly experiencing these reactions can take a physical toll on our bodies.
Of course, I'm not telling you all of this to shame you for having anxiety — far from it. Rather, knowing how anxiety impacts our bodies can help us take better care of ourselves — whether that means motivating us to finally start seeing a therapist to talk about our anxiety issues, or knowing that we should pay extra close attention to our gastrointestinal health when we feel some anxiety coming on. Knowing the physical health effects of untreated anxiety can help motivate us all to treat anxiety like the real health issue that it is — one that can be improved and treated with professional help.
1. It Can Increase Your Odds Of Heart Disease
According to the CDC, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States — it claims 610,000 lives in this country each year. Many of the risk factors when it comes to heart disease are either out of our hands (genetics, age) or related to specific behaviors (smoking, a diet high in saturated and trans fats) — but a few of them are tied to health conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, where keeping an eye on our symptoms and staying on top of our health can really help.
Anxiety is one of these chronic conditions that can have a negative impact on our heart health. Anxiety can lead to a frequently elevated heart rate — which can put sufferers at increased risk for heart disease. According to the American Psychological Association, this can also increase risk for heart attack or stroke. And two studies — including one conducted with the Harvard Medical School and the Lown Cardiovascular Research Institute — found that among people who were already suffering from heart disease, those with anxiety were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who did not have anxiety disorder.
But this doesn't mean anxiety dooms your heart health. Rather, make sure to let your GP know about your anxiety disorders, especially if you're already dealing with any heart health issues, and talk to them about what you can do to lessen your anxiety's possible impact.
2. It's Linked To Irritable Bowel Syndrome And Other Gastrointestinal Disorders
Researchers aren't 100 percent sure of the nature of the connection between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and anxiety, but there is definitely thought to be one — according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), people with IBS are frequently diagnosed with anxiety disorder as well as depression. Anxiety and depression are believed to potentially worsen symptoms, as there is a connection between the colon and the nervous system; but also according to the ADAA, dealing with IBS can put people at higher risk for developing anxiety and depression issues, too.
3. It Can Make Your Breathing Problems Worse
Much like the IBS issues noted above, there is a bit of a "chicken or the egg" question when it comes to anxiety and asthma — though many people with asthma and other breathing disorders have also been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, researchers haven't been able to definitively explain the connection (aside from the fact that living with a respiratory disorder is incredibly stressful and has potential to create extra anxiety in a sufferer's life). But the facts are clear: a 2005 National Institute of Mental Health study found that "[h]aving asthma was linked to a 4.5-fold increase in the risk of developing panic disorder...And people with panic disorder were six times as likely as people without the anxiety condition to develop asthma over the 20 year follow-up period," according to WebMD.
However, we do know officially that the presence of anxiety disorder can worsen breathing problems — anxiety has been associated with more frequent hospitalizations for COPD patients and more severe lung distress in a number of studies. So again, be sure to let your doctor know about your anxiety issues during any treatment for breathing problems.
4. It Can Damage Your Kidneys And Blood Vessels
While the Mayo Clinic's website says that anxiety in and of itself cannot cause chronic high blood pressure, anxiety can cause short-term spikes to your blood pressure, which can damage your kidneys and blood vessels, as well as your heart.
5. It Can Cause Insomnia (Which Can Cause Many Other Problems)
Though lots of people experience a night of terrible sleep due to worrying, those of us with anxiety disorders often experience chronic insomnia on a whole other level; I personally had one year of my life that I barely remember, because my anxiety-induced insomnia had me sleeping only four hours a night, every night. And much like a number of the other physical health problems mentioned, we aren't always sure if anxious people become insomniacs, or if insomniacs often go on to develop anxiety — a 2007 study, which followed the sleep habits of 25,130 adults over 10 years, found that developing insomnia was a common predecessor to developing anxiety, while the Mayo Clinic lists anxiety as one of the top causes of insomnia.
But no matter the order of causation, insomnia does more than just make you feel beyond awful (though it does make you feel beyond awful); long-term effects can include high blood pressure, diabetes, and even increased risk of heart attack.
The Bottom Line
A lot of the time, our culture downplays anxiety disorders, claiming that they're not real mental health problems, and that people who suffer from them just need to "try harder" or "worry less"(uh, great advice — I'll get right on that). This attitude can often color how we treat ourselves — we may think "It's not a real problem, I can deal with it on my own" or that seeing a therapist or psychiatrist about our anxiety is just whining. But it's not — anxiety is a real health problem, and it makes a real impact on nearly every system in our bodies. You deserve to be as healthy and happy as possible — and the first step to feeling better might be taking your anxiety disorder seriously.
Images: Andrew Zaeh/ Bustle; Giphy