Whether you’re feeling uneasy after the past year or have dealt with symptoms for much of your life, experiencing chronic anxiety can take a toll. And it doesn’t just impact your mental wellbeing — the effects of long-term anxiety can also damage your physical health.
If you feel like you’ve been nonstop anxious lately (or for much longer), you’re not alone. About a third of American adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And during the pandemic, that number increased: Four in 10 American adults reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to just one in 10 during 2019, according to a 2021 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It can be hard to determine if you’re experiencing long-term anxiety or a typical amount of stress though, says licensed counselor Nawal Alomari — especially these days. That’s because everyday stress, if not dealt with properly, can lead to long-term feelings of anxiety. “Normal worry means that you can use coping skills to get yourself back on track after you've had a stress event,” she tells Bustle. “Long-term chronic anxiety is your brain looking for something to worry about because the anxiety needs to stay.” Think about anxiety as a creature living in your body, she says — that creature will feed on whatever it can to stay alive for as long as possible.
Anxiety can come about for a few different reasons, she adds. Some people experience what she calls chemical anxiety, which is anxiety that can come about in part due to brain chemistry or genetics, like generalized anxiety disorder. She says you tend to notice signs of this condition early on, sometimes even in childhood. And then there’s situational anxiety, where a major stressor like a big presentation, death of a loved one, or — you guessed it — a pandemic triggers a stress response.
Living with it isn’t just difficult because of the constant stress. Chronic anxiety can harm your mental and physical health as well. Below, mental health experts explain four major effects of long-term anxiety, plus what you can do to manage it.
1. You Live In Stress Mode
Feeling out of control due to stress or anxiety can kick your body into fight-or-flight mode, according to Alomari. The fight-or-flight response is your body preparing you to either attack or run away from the threat at hand, like escaping a charging bear. You’re flooded with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that physically and mentally prepare you to, well, fight or flee. This can cause a racing heartbeat, shaking, feeling tingly, faster breathing, and more.
But when your stressor isn’t an immediately life-threatening situation, like a divorce or prolonged social isolation, having your body on hormonal high alert can do more harm than good, says Alomari. In the short term, it can cause unpleasant physical side effects like headaches or nausea. In the longer-term, she says it can lead to chronic digestive issues, irregular menstrual cycles, and damaged immune function that can pave the way for more illness and infection.
2. It Can Lead To More Mental Health Issues
It’s obvious that anxiety can take a toll on your emotional wellbeing. But it can also lead to other mental health problems, says Juanita Wells, a certified alcohol and drug counselor and director of clinical development at New Method Wellness. Constantly living in stress mode can contribute to developing depression, she says. And feeling like you have no command over whatever is causing your anxiety can also manifest as an eating disorder, she adds, which often develops as a means of feeling in control over something in your life.
Especially during the pandemic (though this can always be true), experiencing anxiety without many external outlets like seeing the people you care about or engaging in stress-relieving hobbies can lead to feelings of isolation, which Wells says can further feed the cycle of anxiety. Fear of COVID and worrying about financial uncertainty, the future, and countless other pandemic-related problems can also brew in isolation and make bad anxiety worse, she adds.
3. It Can Contribute To Substance Abuse
Prolonged anxiety can be difficult to manage, which Wells says prompts some people to turn to drugs and alcohol to help ease stress. While this might take the edge off in the moment, Alomari says you can actually feel more intense feelings of anxiety once the substance wears off (especially when there’s a hangover involved). “It can make you feel more anxious when you’re not taking care of yourself,” she tells Bustle. “Make sure that you’re choosing things that are not going to chemically alter your mood.”
Too much substance use can mess with the balance of feel-good chemicals in your brain, which can reinforce anxiety or depression. Anxiety is also a symptom of alcohol withdrawal, which can occur if you chronically over-drink. And regularly relying on substances to medicate your anxiety can put you at risk for addiction or an addiction relapse, according to 2009 research in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
4. It Increases Risk For Disease
Having stress hormones circulating in abundance can also up your chances of developing disease down the line, says Alomari. Research shows it can put literal stress on your heart and contribute to problems like heart attacks and heart disease. And Wells says chronic anxiety could also be linked to developing an autoimmune disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis — a 2018 study in the journal JAMA found higher rates of autoimmune problems among people who were already diagnosed with a stress-related condition. It can even mess with your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, which studies show can contribute to developing diabetes.
Some unhealthy coping mechanisms for chronic anxiety can lead to problems of their own. Substance misuse like smoking and drinking could contribute to a higher risk for cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. And stress-related changes in your eating habits could lead to nutrition deficiencies or overeating.
How to Cope
Sometimes calming the physical symptoms of anxiety can help your brain follow suit, says Alomari. But finding ways to quiet your fight-or-flight response can be easier said than done, so she says to give it time and try different methods to find out what works best for you. This might mean doing regular mindfulness-focused activities that help quell physical signs of stress, like yoga or meditation.
It could also mean figuring out what habits trigger or calm your anxiety, which you can pinpoint by keeping a journal of your everyday activities and seeing if they link to feelings of stress. She recommends a journaling app called Daylio, which can help you connect the dots between what parts of your routine typically flare your anxiety so you can take measures to prevent or avoid oncoming stress.
And even though a nightly bottle of wine might feel like a great idea in the moment, Wells recommends moderating or pausing drug and alcohol use so that substances don’t become a regular coping mechanism. She also suggests engaging in your favorite activities as much as possible, like exercising or talking to friends. Alomari likewise advises speaking to trusted loved ones or a therapist to help you air out some of the anxiety living in your body and find relief.
Dimsdale, J. (2009). Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. Journals of the American College of Cardiology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2633295/
Goldstein, D. (2010). Adrenal Responses to Stress. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056281/
Kirby, L. (2012). Contributions of Serotonin in Addiction Vulnerability. Neuropharmacology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110503/
McEwan, B. (2009). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European Journal of Pharmacology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2474765/
Panchal, N. (2021). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/
Rao, T. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/
Sinha, R. (2009). Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732004/
Song, H. (2018). Association of Stress-Related Disorders With Subsequent Autoimmune Disease. JAMA, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2685155
Nawal Alomari, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor and life coach based in Chicago