With the stress of getting back to school and work during a global pandemic, statistics show anxiety is on the rise. For many, this is the first time they’re experiencing anxiety or the first time they’re experiencing it regularly. It’s one thing to deal with anxiety in the short-term, such as before a big exam or moving into a new home. But it’s another to battle anxiety regularly for a prolonged period, experts say.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s key to do something about it. “Ignoring anxiety can actually make it worse,” says Sari Chait, PhD, a clinical psychologist. The tricky part is that in the short term, it feels easier to push the anxiety away. “But it makes it come back stronger and more often,” Chait explains. “It becomes harder to enjoy life if you have anxiety constantly in the background.”
The effects of anxiety can be far-reaching. “Anxiety can make it hard to sleep,” Chait says. “It can affect your appetite, it can make it hard to concentrate and be productive at work, and can cause a range of physical health concerns.”
We don’t always associate mental health issues and stress with physical health, but research shows the two are deeply intertwined and undoubtedly can impact each other. In the case of anxiety, it can cause physical health problems.
Ahead, mental health pros explain how unchecked anxiety can affect your body, plus what to do if you recognize any of these issues in yourself.
“Anxiety can cause increased heart rate and high blood pressure,” Chait says. “For a brief moment of anxiety, this is likely not harmful, but for someone who is experiencing ongoing anxiety with consistently high blood pressure, this can have serious health impacts.”
First, having a panic attack, which often involves a racing heart, sweating and other physical symptoms, can make people feel like they’re having a heart attack because the symptoms overlap so much, Chait says.
But there’s also some interesting research showing heart problems are more common in people with anxiety. “More research is needed to say whether anxiety can seriously impact cardiovascular health, but given the cardiovascular symptoms of anxiety, many clinicians and researchers believe there is a relationship,” Chait notes.
You may have heard of the gut-brain connection, or the link between your central nervous system and your enteric nervous system, which is located in your gut. This is the reason many health professionals believe you can eat your way to a better mood.
The connection works the other way around, too. For instance, many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) find their symptoms are worsened by anxiety, Chait says. “In fact, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be a highly effective treatment for IBS.”
Some people also find themselves eating way more than normal or way less than normal as a result of anxiety. “As a result, many people will experience unwanted weight gain or loss with anxiety,” Chait says.
“There is a lot of research showing that anxiety, among other mental health concerns, can decrease immune system functioning making you more susceptible to colds, the flu, and other illnesses,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry. So, if you have poorly managed anxiety, you are more vulnerable to getting sick.
“With anxiety, you are always looking for threats, and seeing threats where they don’t actually exist,” explains Perpetua Neo, PhD, a clinical psychologist. “So you’re always in fight-or-flight mode, meaning that cortisol and adrenaline are constantly coursing through your blood. When your body is busy marshaling resources to fight against a potential threat — whether or not it exists — it cannot dedicate that to taking care of or replenishing your immune system.”
The link between anxiety and sleep problems is strong, according to a wide range of research. “I’ve noticed with my clients that anxiety most often affects sleep,” says Jasmin Terrany, a licensed mental health counselor. “Then, the lack of quality sleep takes a toll on everything else in their lives.”. What’s more, studies show lack of sleep can make anxiety worse, feeding into a vicious cycle.
Anxiety and stress can affect hormonal health in various ways, Magavi says, but one of the most common is it can make it harder for couples to conceive. “Many women experience irregular menstrual cycles due to anxiety,” Magavi adds.
Lastly, anxiety may cause changes in your brain that might affect how well it functions, according to Magavi. “Research indicates that chronic stress and anxiety can potentially stimulate and enlarge the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, thin the prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in cognitive functioning, and weaken connectivity and parts of the brain responsible for memory and creativity.”
The good news is there’s a lot you can do to manage anxiety, and the health issues mentioned above certainly aren’t inevitable.
The number 1 recommendation among mental health pros is to try therapy, especially if you feel your anxiety affects your physical health. “There are several different types of therapy, but cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) have been shown to be highly effective for anxiety,” Chait says. “These are skills-based treatments, so in addition to talking and processing feelings in session, your therapist will teach you a wide range of skills to use so you can learn to manage your anxiety on your own and prevent relapse.”
For people with moderate-to-severe anxiety, medication may also be an option if therapy alone is not enough, Chait says.
As for what you can work on by yourself, Magavi says relaxation and mindfulness activities can help, and may even potentially reverse detrimental neurological changes. This is thanks to neuroplasticity or the ability of the neural networks in your brain to form new connections.
Here’s what she recommends to try to reduce stress and anxiety on your own:
- Start the morning right. “List three things you love about yourself, emotionally, physically or spiritually,” Magavi says. Then take several deep, diaphragmatic breaths and stretch before starting work for the day or joining your first virtual meeting.
- Set boundaries as needed. “For individuals who call often or attempt to email you after work hours, ask them to schedule more frequent meetings with you in advance,” Magavi suggests. Reach out to your colleagues or supervisor to process difficult situations.”
- Say thank you. “Thank your peers, colleagues and loved ones when you converse with them,” Magavi says. “Gratitude is irrefutably therapeutic.”
- Try mindful walking. Magavi recommends taking a mindful walk each day to decompress and reflect, either by yourself or with a loved one.
- Wrap up with reflection. “Before going to bed, think about three things you did that day that you are proud of.”
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