9 Shocking Ways Anxiety Affects Your Health In The Long Run
If you have an anxiety disorder, it can be tempting to ignore your symptoms in favor of pushing through your day — even though they're running you down and stressing you out. But since untreated anxiety can start to impact your health, it is important to take the time to slow down, acknowledge that you feel bad, and find ways to help yourself.
Untreated anxiety not only makes life more difficult, but the stress it causes can also wreak havoc on your body, and lead to health issues over time. "Anxiety triggers the flight-or-fight response in the body causing the release of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) acting as natural stimulants," therapist Emily Cosgrove, LMFT, tells Bustle. "When this response is triggered repeatedly and frequently it [causes] to the body [become] overstimulated and flooded by these hormones which overtime causes the body to begin breaking down, which can lead to numerous symptoms and medical issues."
Once you decide to take control of your anxiety, and seek help, you can not only ease your anxiety, but feel better overall. "With the right treatments, anxiety responds extremely well to psychotherapy," licensed clinical psychologist Kimberly Dwyer, PhD, tells Bustle. "People can also work to manage stress on a day to day basis through exercise, healthy diet and self care, journaling, and mindfulness practices." So don't ever feel like it's not worth it, or it's too difficult to treat your anxiety. Your body will thank you, and you'll feel much better as a result.
Here are nine ways anxiety affects your health in the long run, according to experts.
1. It Can Weaken Your Immune System
When cortisol is pumping through your veins on a regular basis, it can start to wear you down and make you more susceptible to illness.
"Cortisol, in this form, takes a toll on the body’s systems and functioning, causing them ... [to] break down faster than normal," Cosgrove says. "This means the immune system is weakened and may struggle to fight illnesses that enter your body."
That may also explain why you've been feeling rundown, or why you seem to catch single every cold that goes around. That's a sign it's time to address your anxiety, possibly by seeing a therapist. Making a few positive lifestyle changes, in the form of stress-reducing activities, can also help bolster you back up.
2. It Can Cause High Blood Pressure
It's fine to feel anxious or stressed a few times a week. But if it's become an everyday thing, there's a good chance it will start to take a toll on your heart health.
"Excessive amounts of stress and anxiety have been linked with increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease," board-certified cardiologist Dr. Nicole Harkin tells Bustle. "It’s not known exactly why this is the case, but it may be linked with chronic elevation of cortisol (our stress hormone), as well as sustained activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response)."
So the sooner you can treat your anxiety, the better. "General self care (which can be as simple as a relaxing bath or a good book), yoga, and aerobic exercise [can help]," Dr. Harkin says. "Creating and maintaining strong relationships with friends and family is also critical to overall mind-body health."
3. It Can Lead To Insomnia
Ongoing anxiety can start to impact how well you sleep, as well as how refreshed you feel in the morning. So if you're lying awake for hours on end each night, or if you can't keep your eyes open at work, take note.
"Anxiety triggers the stress response in our systems which can flood our bodies with stress hormones like cortisol," psychotherapist Becky Howie, MA, tells Bustle. "Typically we want cortisol levels to taper off towards bedtime, and production of melatonin to increase so that we can fall asleep. But for people who experience anxiety chronically, their cortisol levels are often elevated all of the time, making it difficult for their bodies to settle down and fall asleep or sustain good sleep at night."
That's not great, in and of itself. But since a lack of sleep can make anxiety worse, it truly can become a vicious cycle.
4. It Can Make Your Hair Fall Out
"Emotional health can significantly stunt your hair growth," Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "If your long-term anxiety is severe it can even lead to the hair stopping its growth cycle and lying dormant resulting in permanent hair loss."
That's why, if you're hair is starting to fall out, it may be a good idea to speak with a doctor, as well as a therapist for some stress-relieving and anxiety-reducing techniques.
5. It Can Contribute To Digestive Issues
If your stomach always hurts, if you have frequent diarrhea, or if you feel nauseous on a regular basis, anxiety may be to blame. And again, it's all thanks to the constant state of fight-or-flight that anxiety can cause.
"When this happens, our bodies shunt blood and energy away from non-essential organs (like our digestive system) and towards anything that will help us fight or flee (like getting our blood pumping, sending it to arm and leg muscles to run or fight, etc)," Howie says. "As an acute response, this is very effective in keeping us alive. But when it becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on the natural workings of the digestive system, causing problems like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or constipation because of the constantly dysregulated blood and energy flow it receives."
6. It Can Cause Burnout & Depression
If you have anxiety, feelings of burnout and depression may not be far behind. "Anxiety is associated with co-morbid, or concurring depression," clinical psychologist Dr. Helen Odessky tells Bustle. "The burden that untreated anxiety can place on a person and the limitation they experience socially and professionally with untreated anxiety, can lead to developing depression."
When that happens, self care is key. Taking a break from it all can be a big help. But perhaps the most helpful thing to do, would be to find a therapist. They can teach you ways to better manage your anxiety, so it never gets to this point again.
7. It Can Make You Dizzy
If you don't make overcoming anxiety a priority, you may start to experience ongoing symptoms like dizziness, headaches, or a lack of energy — all of which lower your overall quality of life.
So try not to brush even these smaller symptoms under the rug.
"The problem is: diseases of the brain are not prioritized the same way conditions like diabetes or heart disease are," Dr. Michael Genovese, chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare, tells Bustle. "Taking care of your mental and emotional health requires the same effort as taking care of your physical well-being. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can be a great treatment option for patients suffering from anxiety. Medication also can be an important part of treatment."
8. It Can Make Chronic Health Conditions Worse
If you already have a chronic health condition or illness, prolonged anxiety has the potential to make it worse.
"Constant, untreated stress and anxiety can impact your health by creating further stress on our systems, aggravating conditions that are impacted by sympathetic nervous system arousal," Dr. Dwyer says. "It also can put stress on our immune system."
And that can make healing and recovering more difficult. So the sooner you can seek treatment for your anxiety, the better.
9. It Can Impact Your Mental Health
Anxiety is a tough enough mental health issue to deal with on its own. Add in the fact it can lead to depression, and other problems, and it should be great motivation to seek help.
"If you have anxiety along with another mental health disorder, the fear and stress from anxiety might be making your symptoms worse," Sal Raichbach, PsyD, of Ambrosia Treatment Center, tells Bustle. "For example, if someone that has depression also has social anxiety, they might keep to themselves by isolating in their home. As a result, their depression symptoms would get worse due to being isolated from the outside world."
The good news is, anxiety is highly treatable, so don't hesitate to reach out for help. It's worth it not only to improve the way you feel currently — but to prevent it from leading to other health issues down the road.