Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been wired with a fight-or-flight response to danger. Though threats have become tamer over time, many of us still feel like we’re being chased by saber-toothed cats. Today, anxiety is commonly triggered by situations like giving presentations at work, offering ourselves up to be judged on social media, or talking to strangers. In other cases, it may not be caused by any single situation in particular.
While many of us feel anxious from time to time, experiencing anxious thoughts and feelings on a recurring basis can indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are “the most common mental illness” in the United States, affecting one in five adults, and “women are more than twice as likely as men” to experience one. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders can be caused or worsened by physical factors, including thyroid problems, medications, or substances like caffeine. Anxiety can also have long- or short-term physical effects ranging from mild discomfort to life-threatening conditions. Learning about these effects may seem anxiety-inducing, but you can use your awareness to make lifestyle changes that may help soothe your body and mind. Here’s what happens to your body when you’re anxious all day.
You may have difficulty concentrating if you're always anxious
When you’re anxious all day, it can be difficult to focus on anything other than your anxiety. “Difficulty concentrating is one of the most common diagnostic criteria across DSM-5 categories,” reads a 2017 article in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, “especially within the emotional (mood- and anxiety-related) disorders.” Because difficulty concentrating tends to be subjective and difficult to measure, not much is known about the extent of its relationship to anxiety. One possible explanation is that anxiety causes your body to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol (via Harvard Medical School), which can potentially make you feel jittery and on edge. The stress response requires a lot of physical energy and shifts the brain away from rational thinking and into survival mode, according to WellDoing.org.
Certain lifestyle changes can help boost concentration, and many of them overlap with suggested changes for anxiety management. Healthline recommends eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of sleep, and lowering caffeine consumption. It could also help to engage in a stress-reducing activity such as journaling, meditating, or reading. (Here are some creative activities that could ease your anxiety.)
You might suffer from tension headaches and migraines
People with anxiety may be prone to tension headaches. The exact causes of tension headaches are unknown, but according to Healthline, common triggers include abnormal serotonin levels, trouble sleeping, muscle tension, and stress — all of which could be anxiety-related. Additionally, according to the American Migraine Association, nearly half of all migraine sufferers in the United States also suffer from anxiety. Medical research published in The Journal of Headache and Pain suggests that individuals who suffer from migraines are five times more likely to experience anxiety than those who don’t. So, if you have anxiety, you may be familiar with migraines, too. And vice versa.
To prevent potentially anxiety-induced headaches, Healthline suggests being aware of your triggers. Common migraine triggers include alcohol, caffeine, changes in hormone levels, lack of sleep, and general stress. You may also try to manage your anxiety directly in order to prevent headaches, such as by practicing yoga or meditation. Standard self-care measures, such as exercising daily and drinking plenty of water, can also be helpful in keeping both headaches and anxiety at bay.
Still, anxiety headaches cannot be prevented completely. When they do arise, you may consider treatment options like medication, therapy, or acupuncture. (Here are therapist-approved ways to cope with anxiety.)
Your breath may become short, shallow, or rapid
The relationship between anxiety and breathing can be a catch-22: Anxiety can cause breathing difficulties, and breathing difficulties can cause anxiety. According to Healthline, when the fight-or-flight response sets in with heightened anxiety, you may experience breathing-related symptoms, such as a “tightness” in the chest, shortness of breath (known as dyspnea), or rapid breathing as the body attempts to pump oxygen into your muscles to get you ready for the possibility of “flight,” or running away from what triggered the response.
Deep breathing exercises can help you manage anxiety and related breathing symptoms. Diaphragmatic breathing, for example, involves placing your hand on your stomach as you take deep breaths, paying attention to the stomach as it rises and falls with each breath. Surprisingly, exercises like running can also help when you feel anxious all day, as the body is already prepared for “flight.” Notably, breathing from the nose, in particular, can help you avoid hyperventilation.
If you're anxious every day, you may experience heart palpitations
Episodes of anxiety can trigger heart palpitations, which can make you feel like your heart is racing or fluttering. Stress hormones affect the parts of the brain that regulate the cardiovascular system, so when these hormones set in, cardiovascular functions, such as blood pressure and heart rate, respond accordingly. Healthline reports that palpitations can also be triggered by too much caffeine, which notably commonly triggers anxiety too.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, research suggests that individuals who have generalized anxiety disorder experience cardiac events, such as heart attacks, more frequently than those who do not. Research suggests individuals with anxiety issues may also be more prone to heart disease due to low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods such as seafood, nuts, and seeds. If you experience anxiety, you may quell cardiovascular symptoms in the short-term by cutting down on your morning cups of coffee and in the long-term by eating your omega-3s and avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol.
Your digestive system is thrown off balance by anxiety
Anxiety can feel like butterflies in your stomach — and there’s a scientific explanation as to why. Harvard Health Publishing deems it the “gut-brain connection,” which refers to the gut’s sensitivity to emotions, including anxiety. Your brain and intestines send signals back and forth, which means stomach trouble can cause anxiety and anxiety can cause stomach trouble. Symptoms may include stomach cramps, heartburn, loose stools, and nausea. The “gut-brain connection” can also cause or worsen chronic digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the gut is highly responsive to emotions due to its high volume of nerves and its connections to the brain. To manage both anxiety and digestive upset, you can opt for gut-healthy foods, including probiotics and certain fermented foods, such as yogurt, kombucha, and miso. You may also try avoiding foods that might throw your gut off balance, such as animal proteins and foods that are fried or highly processed, as noted by Medical News Today.
Your sex drive may take a nosedive when you're anxious all day
“All anxiety is a distraction that limits sexual success,” Laurel Steinberg, PhD, a sex and relationship therapist and Columbia University psychology professor, told Health. A bout of anxiety can kill the mood in the bedroom, and chronic anxiety disorders can put a long-term damper on your sex life and a strain on your relationship.
If you are having sex, but feeling anxious while doing so, your body’s stress response can make it almost impossible to relax into orgasm. Anxious feelings can also make it more nerve-wracking to be vocal about what you want or to feel confident in your body in front of your partner.
And then there’s the ultimate catch-22 of the sex-anxiety tug-of-war: As Healthline puts it, “What’s a bigger orgasm killer? Anxiety or anti-anxiety medication?” If you take anti-anxiety meds, you may experience a lower sex drive and find it difficult or even impossible to reach orgasm when you do have sex — the same sex-related symptoms that can accompany untreated anxiety. While there is no straightforward solution for navigating anxiety and sexual satisfaction, your mental health should remain paramount. “An ideal sex life, and relationship in general, is securing your happiness and then helping your partner to be happy — put your own oxygen mask on first,” says psychiatrist Laura F. Dabney, M.D. (via Healthline).
You may have trouble sleeping when you're always anxious
As with many physical symptoms of anxiety, sleep-related symptoms can create a vicious cycle. Ruminating on anxious thoughts can keep you up at night, and the sleep deprivation that results can worsen anxiety. According to Sleep Foundation, “serious sleep disturbances, including insomnia, have long been recognized as a common symptom of anxiety disorders.”
A key factor in insomnia is hyperarousal, which is when the body is in a heightened state of alertness due to stress, per a review in Nature and Science of Sleep. Individuals with anxiety disorders may also have higher sleep reactivity, “which means they are much more likely to have sleeping problems when facing stress” (via Sleep Foundation). Anxious rumination before bed can also disturb the deepest point in the sleep cycle, rapid-eye movement sleep, and even bring on nightmares. In turn, lack of sleep or even low-quality sleep can wreak havoc on individuals’ emotional and mental health.
Aside from medication and cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, sleep hygiene practices can set the stage for a good night’s sleep. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests setting a consistent sleep schedule; avoiding stimulants and screens before bed; and keeping the temperature, noise, and light in your bedroom at comfortable levels.
If you're usually anxious, you may be more prone to aches and pains
Researchers studying the brain and the nervous system have discovered that physical pain shares certain biological connections with anxiety. As anxiety causes tension in the mind, it often prompts the muscles to tense up, which can cause everyday aches and pains. Harvard Health Publishing reported a link between psychiatric disorders and chronic pain syndromes, such as headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and low back pain.
A combination of medication and psychotherapy has proven to be effective in chronic cases of both anxiety and pain. But according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, individuals who experience both anxiety and chronic pain may have a lower pain tolerance and be prone to the side effects of certain medications, which can complicate treatment.
Harvard Health Publishing cited a study that found that “hypnosis training reduced both gastrointestinal distress and levels of depression and anxiety” in 71 percent of individuals studied. Individuals may also lessen their anxiety and physical pain through relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness and yoga, and by avoiding foods, such as gluten, dairy, nightshades, and alcohol.
Your risk of depression may increase when you're anxious
According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety can be both a symptom and a cause of major clinical depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that “there is no evidence one disorder causes the other, but there is clear evidence that many people suffer from both disorders.”
Depression is more common among women than among men, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In women, depression “tends to manifest as sadness, worthlessness, and guilt.” Anxiety and depression share similar symptoms, including “nervousness, irritability, and problems sleeping and concentrating.”
Though the two conditions vary, they require similar clinical treatments in the forms of psychotherapy and medication. Lifestyle factors, such as “improving sleep habits, increasing social support, using stress-reduction techniques, or getting regular exercise” can also help, per Mayo Clinic. Individuals who have anxiety, depression, or both are advised to avoid alcohol and non-prescription drugs.
You may feel irritable
Irritability is a common symptom of both anxiety and depression. According to Medical News Today, irritability can be inflamed by factors such as “life stress, a lack of sleep, low blood sugar levels, and hormonal changes.” Irritable feelings are sometimes accompanied by similar symptoms to anxiety, including “confusion or difficulty concentrating, excessive sweating, a rapid heartbeat, [and] fast or shallow breathing.” Your efforts to avoid anxiety-inducing situations may make you hypersensitive to even minor irritations, which can cause more extreme or long-term irritability.
Your irritable feelings do not mean you’re a disagreeable or grumpy person. An anxious, hyper-aroused state can make minor annoyances or inconveniences seem like colossal threats due to fight-or-flight instincts. If you’re feeling irritable, CalmClinic recommends communicating with the people around you about how you’re feeling and what you need, and apologizing if necessary.
Anxiety, irritability, and mood swings are often caused or worsened by hormonal imbalances. The Women in Balance Institute suggests limiting processed foods, maximizing organic fruits and vegetables, and replacing coffee and soda with green tea and water.
When you're always anxious, you may experience panic attacks
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are two different things, but they have similar emotional and physical symptoms. According to Healthline, unexpected panic attacks involve flurries of fear or feelings of impending doom that may come on for unknown reasons. Expected panic attacks often occur in response to specific fears or situations that the sufferer finds stressful. Panic attacks are often intense, while anxiety attacks may vary in severity, and panic attacks typically last no more than ten minutes, per WebMD. Multiple panic attacks may indicate a panic disorder.
Panic attacks can occur as a result of feelings of anxiety that have escalated to extreme levels. Common triggers for both anxiety and panic include driving, social and work situations, and chronic illness or pain, per Healthline. The distinction is that anxiety may come on more slowly than a panic attack would, and it is usually caused by the anticipation of stress or a particular threat. Still, both anxiety and panic can be accompanied by an intense physical response. WebMD warns that particularly intense symptoms — “such as chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, dizziness, fainting, and weakness” — should be assessed by a doctor.
You may lose your appetite
In anxious times, you may be too preoccupied by the things that are causing your anxiety to fulfill your own basic needs, like sleeping and even eating. Some people may neglect their need to eat completely. According to the 2015 Stress in America survey by the American Psychological Association, 31 percent of respondents reported that they had “skipped a meal in the last month because of stress” (via Healthline).
Losing your appetite due to anxiety is related to the primal fight-or-flight response, per Healthline. It can also be the result of the body’s excess production of the cortisol stress hormone. “In the acute or immediate setting, stress causes increased levels of cortisol, which in turn increases acid production in the stomach,” said Raul Perez-Vazquez, MD, according to Healthline. “This process is meant to help the body quickly digest food in preparation for ‘fight-or-flight,’ which is mediated by adrenaline. This process also, for the same reasons, decreases appetite.”
It may be helpful to intentionally schedule times for meals and snacks, and to reach for nutritious, easy-to-eat foods.
You may feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous when you're always anxious
According to research published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 2008, “about 28 percent of people with dizziness also have symptoms of at least one anxiety disorder” (via Medical News Today). Anxiety can cause dizziness in a few different ways.
Vasovagal syncope, or a sudden drop in blood pressure, is commonly linked to medical-related phobias and can cause fainting. In other cases, the “subjective feeling of dizziness” can accompany anxiety due to the body reflecting a loss of emotional balance. A 2014 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found a link between “anxious, introverted personality traits” and chronic subjective dizziness. Dizziness can also be caused by anxiety-related breathing problems, such as hyperventilation, which can lead to fainting.
As with many physical symptoms, dizziness is both a symptom and a cause for anxiety. While medication and therapy may be required in some cases, steps such as lying down, closing your eyes, and breathing gently can help alleviate bouts of anxiety-related dizziness. As with many physical anxiety symptoms, getting plenty of water and sleep can also help to prevent discomfort and keep your body in balance.
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