There is a lot of evidence to suggest that people who have persistent anxiety are more at risk of developing physical illnesses and are more likely to develop chronic conditions. Consultant psychologist Dr Sue Peacock explains more about how our mental states can make the pain worse and, in some cases, even create it.
What happens when we are anxious?
We know that feelings of anxiety are closely linked to activity that occurs in the amygdala region of our brains. This is the area that generates our emotional responses. As this brain region begins to work the following occurs, our:
- Heart and breathing rates increase
- Muscles tense
- Blood flow is diverted to those organs of our body – part of our flight and fight response.
In short, our bodies go into high alert. This is an essential state if we are in real physical danger, but if we are not and it goes on for a long time, it wears us out. This diversion of blood flow and heightened response can cause specific physical problems.
What physical problems can occur?
It may cause digestive problems such as nausea and diarrhoea are common, for example. Migraine headaches are more likely and are more severe, as is dizziness and light-headedness. Muscle pain for which no particular physical cause can be found is also part of the pattern.
Pain which may be pre-existing, such as back pain may feel much worse.
On top of these direct physical consequences, if we are very anxious we do not look after ourselves well and that has consequences for our physical health. It is harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle if you are in a heightened state of anxiety. For example, over-eating and comfort eating (bingeing on sweet, sugary foods for example), lack of exercise and substance abuse can become ways of coping.
These fixes may seem to have a short-term effect of lessening anxiety but they take a long-term toll, which can damage our health and lead to pain.
How can anxiety cause serious disease?
This feeling of ‘wearing out’ can have very bad long-term consequences. Heart diseases, respiratory disorders, and digestive conditions can all arise as a consequence.
These problems are very common in modern societies as 20% of people suffer from serious digestive problems, for example.
People who have serious respiratory disorders, such as COPD, are likely to find that they are made much worse, and hospitalisation is much more likely if they are suffering from chronic anxiety. In this case, it does not seem that anxiety causes this problem but it certainly makes it worse. It affects the quality of life in a very serious way.
Anxiety certainly plays a role in heart disease. A very big study of nurses’ health, for example, showed that nurses who had severe anxiety related to phobias were more likely to have a heart attack than those with very low levels of anxiety. Another study found that in post-menopausal women a history of full-blown panic attacks tripled the risk of a stroke.
Book an appointment now with Dr Peacock if you're concerned about your anxiety.