Long-term anxiety can affect your well-being from head to toe.
Anxiety might be best known for its most obvious symptom—chronic worrying and feeling “on the edge”—but this common mental illness can actually usher in a range of symptoms that are seemingly unrelated to the brain.
An astounding 18.1 percent of the U.S. adult population has some type of anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), so recognizing and treating anxiety could have an impact on a wide variety of other physical issues you may be dealing with.
Digestive issues like upset stomach, bloating, or indigestion. New research on the gut-brain connection continues to highlight the variety of ways your brain can affect your digestion (and vice versa). The gastrointestinal tract is lined with nerves that communicate back and forth with the brain (this explains why you might feel nauseous before an important job interview). Stress and anxiety are considered common triggers for functional digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
Unintentional weight loss. Anxiety can also kill your appetite (especially if you’re also feeling bloated and crampy, a result of the gut-brain connection). Over time, this can lead to unwanted or even harmful weight loss.
Headaches and migraines. The link between headaches and anxiety is so strong that the ADAA cites headaches as one of the main symptom of an anxiety disorder; daily headaches are more common in people who have a type of anxiety disorder. Here are other common headache triggers.
Insomnia. Your quality of sleep and your mental health have a reciprocal relationship, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A lack of sleep can negatively affect your outlook on life, and being overly anxious can disrupt your sleep and keep you up at night. These nighttime sleep habits might help reduce everyday stress.
Heart disease and high blood pressure. Your stress levels impact the heart in more ways than one. First, chronic stress can directly affect the body by constantly releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This causes the heart to beat faster and the blood vessels to constrict. This is normal and totally healthy in occasional stressful situations, but putting your body under daily stress over a long period of time may take a toll on blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. Second, anxiety can impact the heart indirectly because you tend to make less heart-healthy lifestyle choices (like ordering a second or third gin and tonic) when you’re worn out or sleep-deprived from anxiety.
Dental issues. Anxiety is a common trigger for grinding teeth—particularly while you sleep—which can lead to sore jaws or toothaches. Grinding your teeth is also linked to experiencing dull headaches, according to the American Dental Association (see #3.) A 2006 study in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry also found that participants with anxiety or depression were more likely to have bleeding gums and toothaches, regardless of their brushing and flossing habits.
Respiratory problems like asthma. Being under stress or anxiety affects your breathing and may be a trigger for asthma attacks, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. If you are noticing an uptick in asthma symptoms, your mental health could be a factor.
Fatigue. Obviously if you are losing sleep due to anxiety, you are going to be more tired. However, the constant feeling of panic can wear you down and lead to a lack of energy, even if you’re technically getting enough hours of sleep.
Low libido. Stress, anxiety, and related mental health issues can both reduce your sexual desire and cause sexual dysfunction. A 2014 study found that adults with mood and anxiety disorders reported higher levels of sexual dissatisfaction, and a 2013 study of women found that those with anxiety disorders were more likely to report poor lubrication or pain during sex than those without anxiety. Here are other habits that lower your libido.
Not sure if you’re feeling temporary stress or worry or an actual anxiety disorder? Here are signs of a mental health disorder you shouldn’t brush off.
Anxiety and physical illness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Medical School, 2017. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/anxiety_and_physical_illness.)
Asthma triggers and management. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/asthma-library/asthma-triggers-and-management.)
Dettore D, Pucciarelli M, Santarnecchi E. Anxiety and female sexual functioning: an empirical study. J Sex Marital Ther. 2013;39(3):216-40.
Facts & statistics. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics#.)
Fatigue. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003088.htm.)
Food Forum, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Relationships among the brain, the digestive system, and eating behavior: workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2015. Chapter 2: Interaction between the brain and the digestive system.
Gelenberg AJ. Psychiatric and somatic markers of anxiety: identification and pharmacologic treatment. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2000 Apr;2(2):49-54.
Managing stress to control high blood pressure. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2018. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/MakeChangesThatMatter/Managing-Stress-to-Control-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_301883_Article.jsp#.Wpgb3-jwYdV.)
Marques-Vidal P, Milagre V. Are oral health status and care associated with anxiety and depression? A study of Portuguese health science students. J Public Health Dent. 2006 Wint;66(1):64-6.
Teeth grinding. American Dental Association. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/t/teeth-grinding.)
The complex relationship between sleep, depression, & anxiety. Washington, DC: National Sleep Foundation. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://sleepfoundation.org/excessivesleepiness/content/the-complex-relationship-between-sleep-depression-anxiety.)
The gut-brain connection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Medical School, 2017. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection.)
Understand the facts: headaches. Silver Spring, MD: Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/headaches#.)
Vanwesenbeeck I, Have MT, de Graaf R. Associations between common mental disorders and sexual dissatisfaction in the general population. Br J Psychiatry. 2014 Aug;205(2):151-7.
Weight loss - unintentional. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003107.htm.)
Women and sexual problems. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on March 1, 2018 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000663.htm.)