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Anxiety and How it Affects Your Body

Mar 30, 2024

5 min read

Anxiety can often have long-term and lasting effects on the body. Everyone reacts differently, but here are some common ways anxiety interacts with your body.

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A visual representing a lot going through one person's head where all their thoughts seem scrambled and entangled; and is meant to represent anxiety.
Rhea Kadakia, Junior Writer, Fluent Health

RHEA

KADAKIA

Do you experience moments when you can feel your heart beating in your ears, your breathing is ragged, and you’re hyper-aware of your surroundings? Is it fear, or is it anxiety? We live in an age where conversations on mental health are becoming increasingly mainstream, and ‘anxiety’ has become one of the many new terms that people identify themselves with. 

Fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to note that there is a marked difference between the two. Anxiety is a long-acting, future-focused response to a perceived threat, whereas fear is an immediate response to a clearly identified and specific threat. The American Psychological Association categorises anxiety as feelings of tension combined with physical changes like increased blood pressure and worried thoughts.

 What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a response to stressful situations. It is normal and most people experience it. In fact, mild anxiety is a helpful motivator. Tanushree Baikar, a clinical psychologist at Samarpan Health, says, “People often confuse being anxious with an anxiety disorder. Being anxious is good and normal; an anxiety disorder is harmful and requires professional help.”

But how do you distinguish between anxiety and an anxiety disorder? Anxiety refers to a future concern or circumstantial situation and is associated with muscle tension and avoidance behaviour. In the case of an anxiety disorder, people tend to avoid situations that trigger or make their symptoms worse. 

The  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, one must:

  • Have excessive anxiety and worry for at least six months.
  • Experience difficulty controlling their worry.
  • Their anxiety results in significant distress and interferes with or impairs their ability to function daily.
  • Their anxiety isn’t due to a physical cause (for example, thyroid issues or substance abuse)

The anxiety must also be associated with a minimum three or more of the following symptoms for at least six months:

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Getting easily fatigued
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleeping issues
  • Irritability

What are the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are pretty common but can have a profound effect on your everyday life. Some physical symptoms of anxiety disorders are:

Feeling restless, nervous or tense

The amygdala, an area of the brain that triggers emotional responses, plays a crucial role in developing nervousness or tension. The amygdala signals the body’s flight or fight response when these feelings are triggered. In response, the body releases the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Long-term exposure to these hormones can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes and put you at higher risk for,

  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Heart disease

Breathing and respiratory changes (hyperventilation)

During periods of anxiety, a person’s breathing pattern can change. It becomes shallow and rapid; this is known as hyperventilation. Hyperventilation allows the lungs to take in more oxygen and quickly transport it around the body, helping it prepare to fight or flee. Hyperventilation can make a person feel like they aren’t getting enough oxygen, heightening the feelings of fear and oftentimes making them hyperventilate more, thereby worsening their symptoms, which include:

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling faint
  • Lightheadedness
  • Tingling 
  • Weakness

Tanushree Baikar with  Samarpan Health reiterated the effects of hyperventilation in correlation with anxiety, “I have patients with anxiety who struggle with catching their breath when they get overwhelmed. This is fairly common in most patients with anxiety disorders, but I do feel sometimes when they begin to hyperventilate, they make themselves more anxious due to lack of control over themselves.”

Sweating and an increased heart rate

Anxiety can cause an increased heart rate, reinforcing the body’s fight or flight response. The increased blood flow due to the faster heart rate brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. The stress hormones released due to anxiety cause the blood vessels to narrow, known as vasoconstriction. This affects the body’s temperature and results in sweating. Long-term anxiety may also increase the risk of heart disease in otherwise healthy people.

Digestive issues

Due to the release of stress hormones triggered by anxiety, cortisol blocks “non-essential” body functions in favour of the fight or flight response. One of these blocked processes is digestion. Also, adrenaline being released as a result of anxiety reduces blood flow to the stomach muscles and relaxes them.  A combination of these factors can result in people with anxiety experiencing nausea, diarrhoea and loss of appetite. Studies also show that IBS is a common digestive disease among people with anxiety and depression.

Other anxiety symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble with thinking or concentrating on anything besides the present worry
  • Difficulty in having control over worrying
  • An urge to avoid anything that triggers anxiety

Now that you know about the various physical effects of anxiety on the body, let’s look at the types of anxiety disorders.

What are the different types of anxiety disorders?

Simply put, anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that fall into six classifications:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders. People diagnosed with GAD may suffer from extreme worry or tension — the reason for the concern may be unknown. It is a mental health condition that creates worry, fear, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s characterised by frequent, excessive, and unrealistic stress about everyday aspects, such as job responsibilities, health or chores.  

Panic disorder

If you have a panic disorder, you eperience intense, sudden, and recurrent panic attacks. The feeling of terror that accompanies a panic attack may come unexpectedly or suddenly, or the panic attacks may come from a trigger, like facing a situation that you dread. 

During a panic attack, you may experience:

  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations (feeling like your heart is pounding)
  • Chest pain
  • A choking feeling which can make you think you’re having a heart attack or ‘going crazy.’

Panic attacks can be an overwhelming combination of physical and psychological distress. During an attack, several symptoms occur in combination, these include palpitations, pounding heart or rapid heart rate, trembling, sweating, or shaking, shortness of breath or smothering sensations, chest pain and more.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Previously known as social phobia, people suffering from a social anxiety disorder tend to feel easily overwhelmed with worry and self-consciousness in everyday social situations. The feelings of judgment and opening yourself up to conceived ridicule can lead people with social anxiety to avoid social situations entirely.

Phobias, Specific Phobia 

A specific phobia is an intense feeling of fear of a certain thing, object or situation. Often, the level of fear doesn’t match the situation. Similar to other anxiety disorders, people with phobias avoid situations that may trigger it. It may also cause you to avoid everyday situations. 

Here are a few examples of specific phobias:

  • Animals (dogs, snakes, spiders or other insects)
  • Heights
  • Clowns
  • Blood

As a result of a specific phobia, you may:

  • Feel instant and intense panic, fear or anxiety when exposed to it.
  • Know that your fears are unfounded but are unable to do anything about them.
  • Have anxiety that worsens as the situation or object gets closer to you physically or in time.
  • Do everything possible to avoid the situation or face it with extreme anxiety or fear.
  • Have physical reactions and feelings, including sweating, rapid heartbeat, tight chest or trouble breathing.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Primarily found in children and teens, separation anxiety disorder is when individuals worry or stress about being away from their parents. For adults, it manifests as an anxiety disorder with extreme sadness when the person is separated from a particular place that makes them feel safe or a person that they love.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder where one has an intense fear of getting overwhelmed or being unable to get help.  It can also be explained as a fear of being caught in a situation where escape is improbable or impossible.

Examples of agoraphobia are: 

  • The fear of using public transport
  • Being in open or enclosed spaces
  • Standing in line
  • Being in a crowd
  • Leaving your home

Managing anxiety

Anxiety can manifest itself in different ways for people who experience it. However, it is manageable with treatment. If you feel like you suffer from constant worrying that won’t leave you, it is worth reaching out to a healthcare provider to get the help you need. Anxiety may not go away with time and could get worse if left unaddressed.

Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Priyanka Jagasia, Clinical Psychologist


Rhea Kadakia, Junior Writer, Fluent Health

Rhea Kadakia has been writing across the spectrum of lifestyle journalism from her first days as an intern at the India Today Group. Since then she has fine tuned her knack of storytelling within a given context at Vogue, DNA, and CNN News 18. Her work at Fluent Health immerses her in the thick of a tidal change in healthcare, making access to informed and quality healthcare a reality for everyone. 


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