Updated: Apr 25, 2020
It is unlikely that any of us do not experience anxiety on occasion, it is a fundamental element of the human condition and for many of us it is rearing its ugly head as we struggle with the realities of Covid-19.
While anxiety has a direct effect on mental well-being, it can also be detrimental to physical health. When reacting to physical or mental fear our brain sends a signal to the central nervous system to activate a critical stress response known as the “fight or flight response.
If this response is activated constantly for no apparent cause or a minor incident, the body gradually wears down. Here are some common physical indicators of the anxiety response.
Release of Hormones:
Once stress, fear or anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response, the body chooses either to fight the stressor or to run away from it resulting in increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones. These hormones help us survive but only in small doses. Releasing them over long periods will cause cardiovascular and digestive problems and it affects our immune system.
Increased Heart Rate:
When the body starts diverting blood & oxygen to the muscles, the heart automatically starts pumping more quickly to create more blood flow, which it thinks the body needs to deal with the stressful situation. This may cause heart palpation and chest pain and it can increase the risk of high blood pressure & heart disease.
Dizziness and shaking
During serious stress, blood rushes to parts of the body where it has needed most for fight or flight, such as the heart and extremities. The rapid blood flow can cause one to feel light-headed, dizzy, unsteady or faint and some people may experience a tingling sensation or numbness. The surge of hormones can also, cause fidgeting or overall restlessness, even in typically calm or manageable situation.
Muscle tension and migraines
Muscle tensions are a preventive act by the body when it faces stress and is attempting to avoid injury. Prolonged periods of muscle tension can lead to aches, pain, knots and tightness. It is common in people with anxiety to feel pain in their neck, back, shoulders and jaw muscles. Teeth grinding and restless fidgeting have also been reported. Some studies found that people with migraines were two to ten times as likely to have mood or anxiety disorders as those without these and other types of headaches.
Shallow, rapid breathing is one of the immediately noticeable physical symptoms of anxiety. It appears as a defensive response to a stressful situation. Short breaths enable the lungs to get more time to take in more oxygen and spread it quickly to the body parts where it is needed the most. This can make a person feel they are not getting enough oxygen and as a result have breathing trouble and feel like they are going to pass out.
Efficient day-to-day functioning requires good sleep through the night. Anxiety caused by stressful situation can make falling or staying asleep challenging. As result, a repeating cycle of anxiety leads to insomnia on and on. A study at the University of California in Berkeley states, “There are high instance of mood and anxiety disorders combined with severe insomnia that impaired the subjects’ ability to think, function socially and provide a high quality of work”.
Excess Blood Sugar and Weight Gain
In reaction to stress, hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine are released resulting in the liver making more glucose, which in turn leads to higher blood sugar. Our body reabsorbs the extra sugar in the short term, but when blood sugar rises over time, it increases the risk of type two diabetes. Craving for “Comfort Foods” especially the ones with high sugar or salt, which cause brain to produce more serotonin, will result in the increased storage of fats in body and weight gain.
There are two types of sweat glands located all over human body, eccrine and apocrine. Whenever we feel anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system activates, puts these sweat glands into overdrive leading them to produce excessive perspiration. More blood goes to the muscles causing the blood vessels tighten and begin diverting oxygen. Because of constricted blood vessels, the body temperature increases and the sweat glands try to cool down the body.
In each situation, our body can figure out which functions to prioritize. Although, chronic anxiety can affect these processes. In reacting to anxiety our digestive system could create blocks and stomach muscles might relax causing nausea, stomach pain and diarrhea. It is also possible to experience frequent urination or experience a total loss of control. Loss of appetite, heartburn or acid reflux are a few other things individuals could suffer from.
Repressed Immune System
Our immune system gets a temporary boost of increased efficiency once facing regular stress. Once anxiety becomes chronic, our immune system can be suppressed which may lead to higher chance of catching viral infections like cold and flue. Dealing with infection triggers extreme cortisol levels, which prevents anti-inflammatory reactions and a natural immune response to fight infection.