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5 ways anxiety can lead to physical problems

By Intermountain Live Well  |  Posted May 9th, 2017 @ 3:00pm


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Anxiety is the most prevalent mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults. Unfortunately, the symptoms of anxiety are not limited to just the psychological.

The brain is a powerful organ, and it can turn the mental anguish of anxiety, depression, and fear into real physical pain.

“Most people actually experience anxiety as a physical problem,” said Jason Conover, social worker for Intermountain Healthcare’s Utah Valley Hospital. “It often isn’t recognized [as anxiety] because the physical symptoms are so apparent and quite troubling that they might think they are experiencing something else—for instance, a heart attack.”

One problem with anxiety is that it builds tension throughout the body. Conover explained that the brain can react to thoughts of fear, causing the muscles to brace for a moment that is not happening. The body’s reaction is much like if it was expecting an accident or protecting itself from a punch. Although the action never happens, the body experiences it chemically due to a random fear thought that crept in.

Treating anxiety is crucial, not only for better mental health but physical health as well. Here are five ways that anxiety manifests as physical problems.

Breathing

Anxiety-induced tension can change breathing. Tense lungs do not fully exhale, leading to short, shallow, or held breaths. But relaxation and breathing techniques can help. Conover suggested that people practice letting go of all the air until their lungs are empty in order to regulate their breathing.

Muscle Pain

Anxiety can run tension through the whole body, impacting different muscles in different people. Some will feel it in their neck and jaw, others in their chest or stomach. There is no specific area, only wherever the brain sends the nerve signals. If muscle tightness persists then it can turn into actual pain.

Rapid Heart Beat

A change in heart rate can be prompted by multiple sources. Shortness of breath forces the heart to pump more oxygen into the blood to compensate.

Another way anxiety affects heart rate is because it drives adrenaline. Adrenaline is typically released into the body during moments of intense action like skydiving or mountain climbing. But it is also released during mediocre moments when people feel anxious about an impending experience, like meeting someone or standing up in front of a group. This adrenaline cue leaves people feeling shaky or generally unwell.

Blood Flow

Poor blood flow also contributes to physical symptoms of anxiety. In moments of panic, the body goes into emergency mode and pulls blood to the main organs, such as the heart, and larger muscles, Conover explains. This leads to cold hands, feet, fingers, and toes as the body tries to protect itself. People who suffer from anxiety can also feel light-headed and sweaty.

Stomach Issues

“One of the all-time classic symptoms [of anxiety] is the stomach,” Conover said. There are numerous gastrointestinal problems that can come with anxiety. Diarrhea, constipation, and acid reflex are a few examples of how digestion suffers.

Relaxation techniques can help calm many of these symptoms. Anxiety as a whole should be treated the same as any health issue, so speak to your family doctor if affects you. Providers can give assistance and treatment plans for you to help manage anxiety and the physical manifestations that come along with it.

Visit IntermountainHealthcare.org for more information on anxiety disorders, symptoms, and care.

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