4 Ways That Untreated Anxiety Impacts Physical Health
In the United States, the most common type of mental disorders is different kinds of anxiety. In fact, more than 18 percent of American adults experience anxiety in any given year. This class of illness includes panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Although anxiety is terrifying and overwhelming, professionals can help. These mental illnesses typically respond well to treatment, including medications or therapy. However, less than 37 percent of people with anxiety disorders seek treatment. When left unchecked, anxiety can wreak havoc on a person’s mind and body in these ways:
1) The Immediate Effects of Panic Attacks
When a person has a panic attack, some of the physical effects are readily apparent. During the panic attack, a person may experience:
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle tension
- Excruciating headaches
- Elevated blood pressure
Many times, the physical panic attack symptoms are so severe that they lead patients to believe they are suffering heart attacks. Furthermore, these symptoms can make other chronic conditions flare up. For example, someone with asthma who has difficulty breathing during a panic attack may need to use an inhaler or seek immediate medical care.
Even in the hours after a panic attack, patients can feel the physical effects. They may feel sore from the muscle tension or exhausted. When panic and anxiety go untreated for long enough, they can cause some less-immediate but equally dangerous physical problems.
2) Increased Risk of Heart Attack
Panic attacks and chronic anxiety put a lot of stress on the heart with increased blood pressure and pulse. As such, people with unmanaged anxiety are more likely to have heart attacks than their peers, and those attacks are more likely to be fatal.
Harvard Health reports that women with anxiety disorders are 59 percent more likely to have heart attacks than their peers, and those attacks are 31 percent more likely to result in death. In post-menopausal women, the likelihood of having a panic attack triples when they experience panic disorders. Furthermore, both men and women with heart disease are twice as likely to have heart attacks when they also have anxiety.
3) More Stress Hormones
When a person has a panic attack or prolonged anxiety, the body releases a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Sometimes these hormones are helpful. For example, when someone is in a physically dangerous situation, adrenaline can help them get the energy to run away from the situation.
However, too much adrenaline or cortisol over a long period of time can cause:
- Unwanted weight gain
- Cognitive decline
- Immune system deficiencies
- High blood pressure and heart disease
- Increased risk for other mental illnesses
- Worsening risk for disorders like Cushing Syndrome
- Higher cholesterol
While medications can treat many of these problems, it is better to go to the source and treat the anxiety before it can hurt the body in these ways.
4) Insomnia and Its Effects
While not all people with anxiety live with insomnia, many do. Sometimes insomnia starts first and causes anxiety. Other times, anxiety causes insomnia, which makes anxiety symptoms worsen. Not only can the vicious cycle of sleep problems and stress feel overwhelming, but it can also cause long-term health problems such as:
- Cognitive trouble
- Increased risk for harmful accidents
- Weakened immune system
- Higher risk for diabetes
- Unwanted weight gain
- Increased blood pressure
- Trouble with balance
- Higher risk for heart disease
The first step to avoiding these health problems is seeking treatment for anxiety. The caring, knowledgeable therapist at LifeStance Health can help. Patients can decide what kinds of treatment work best for them and receive the support they need to get well and stay that way. If you think you may experience anxiety or chronic stress, contact us today.