Can’t stop worrying? Find it impossible to relax? Living in a constant state of anxiety overextends your brain and body. It may see like worrying can protect you from trouble, but if your fears don’t subside when a threat goes away, you could be facing serious health problems. Take a look at some of the ways anxiety can wreck the way you look and feel.
#1 You could be upping your risk for depression and dementia.
Anxiety’s effects start in the brain. A recent research review found that chronic stress damages key areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotional responses. As a result, people with anxiety disorders may have a higher risk of neuropsychiatric disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and depression and may struggle with thoughts of suicide.
#2 You may get sick more often.
In a normal stress response, your brain releases a flood of chemicals to allow you to react swiftly to a threat and then those chemicals dissipate. If your worry is always turned on, this stress response can’t turn off, which can weaken your immune system. If you feel like a germ magnet, it could be your anxiety making you more vulnerable to illnesses like colds, infections and chronic respiratory disease (COPD).
#3 Your digestive system may get out of whack.
Have you noticed changes in your appetite or issues with diarrhea or constipation? It could be your anxiety making you sick. Studies have linked anxiety disorders to irritable bowel syndrome, reflux, bloating and metabolism changes.
#4 Your sex life may suffer.
Since anxiety often causes fatigue, headaches, irritability and muscle tension, it’s not too surprising that you might not be in the mood for sex. But the problem actually has deeper roots. Chronic anxiety can impact your sex hormone production, which zaps your libido from the inside out.
#5 You’re in for more sleepless nights.
Do your worries keep you up at night? Insomnia is commonly reported among people with anxiety disorders. According to surveys, not being able to fall asleep makes people more anxious and less focused the next day, creating a cycle that fuels even more anxiety.
#6 You’re at greater risk of major illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
Chronic anxiety affects most major systems in the body. That constantly racing heart is more than annoying — it could increase your risk for heart attack, stroke, coronary artery disease and high blood pressure. Research has also linked anxiety disorders to lung problems like asthma. For people at risk of diabetes, high blood sugar caused by the flood of stress hormones in the adrenal system may lead to health complications.
#7 You’re more likely to look for relief in all the wrong places.
The misery of an anxiety disorder leads us to search for ways to cope. Sometimes the coping mechanism is healthy, such as exercise or meditation. But often, it’s destructive habits that seem to promise the most immediate relief. That’s why anxiety frequently goes hand in hand with overeating or substance abuse. People with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to develop a problem with drugs or alcohol than the rest of the population.
#8 Your work performance may suffer.
Your age may not be the only reason your memory isn’t what it used to be. Chronic stress impacts the area of your brain where memories are stored, making it tough to hold on to memories and create new ones. Anxiety can also make it difficult to concentrate. Combine these effects with the physical health problems tied to anxiety and you can see how your work performance could suffer. Not feeling well means more sick days and absences and stops you from doing your best work.
#9 Your anxiety ages you.
Changes in blood flow prompted by the body’s stress response may prematurely age your skin. You might also break out like a teenager or lose your hair faster than usual. Or your skin may look swollen or puffy because of elevated histamine levels. All that puffiness also could point to something else —weight gain. Chronic stress can change your metabolism, causing you to pack on the pounds.
Reversing the Damage
The goal of pointing out all of these risks is not to add another layer of worry to your anxiety-laden life. It’s to highlight the importance of doing something about it. If you get help early enough, the damage may be reversible using anxiety-busters like exercise, a healthy diet, mindfulness meditation, medication in some cases, and anxiety counseling.
Forty million Americans have anxiety disorders. Many have needlessly accepted constant worry and fear as a way of life. But taking steps to manage your anxiety now can buy you years of healthier, more relaxed and joyful times ahead.