It's easy to assume anxiety only affects a person's mental state, but it can show up in physical ways as well, especially when it comes to excessive anxiety. There are quite a few surprising health problems anxiety can cause, from vision issues to cardiac troubles. Thankfully, though, most of these conditions, as well as anxiety itself, are treatable.
For the most part, physical symptoms are a common way anxiety affects people. In fact, about 7 to 8 percent of "patients seen in a primary care medical office suffer from anxiety, and most suffer from a physical symptom rather than a mental health issue such as fear, worry or nervousness," Dr. David Clarke, president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association, tells Romper. In other words, most medical professionals are well aware of the many ways anxiety can cause issues throughout the body. It is definitely not "just in your head."
If you decide to get help in managing your anxiety symptoms, then this endeavor doesn't have to become another source of stress in your life. First, get in contact with a professional. Talk to your doctor or find an anxiety therapist in your area. Next, give yourself a break. "It’s important not to feel ashamed for having anxiety and to be able to have a compassionate stance towards your own symptoms," says Gita Zarnegar, Ph.D., Psy.D., LMFT, training and supervising psychoanalyst. "You will be surprised how many people around you suffer from anxiety as well." As Zarnegar further explains, it's a great idea to surround yourself with nonjudgmental, supportive friends during this time.
Lastly, it's important to remember that anxiety does serve a purpose, at least in smaller doses. "Not all stress or anxiety is bad," as Dr. Catherine Jackson, licensed clinical psychologist and board certified neurotherapist, tells Romper. At a healthy level, anxiety can help a person find the motivation to complete a task, improve athletic performance, or boost brain power, according to Dr. Jackson. That feeling of nervousness before a big test or public speaking event might help you perform better. "However, persistent and prolonged anxiety can be detrimental to your physical, cognitive/brain, emotional, behavioral and psychological health," says Dr. Jackson. If these physical signs of anxiety do show up in your own life, then remember that there are many options for help and treatment available.
1. Skin Issues
Sometimes anxiety can "result in inflammation that leads to skin problems such as acne, dry patches (eczema) or breaking out into hives," says Dr. Jackson. A visit to your dermatologist or family doctor could help determine whether anxiety may be the cause of these common skin concerns.
2. Hair Loss
Another potential physical sign of anxiety is hair loss, according to Dr. Jackson. Stress can result in the hair loss condition telogen effluvium, as well as the compulsive hair-pulling condition known as trichotillomania, as explained on UPMC Health Beat. Although this kind of hair loss can be concerning, it is not necessarily permanent. Talk to your physician or therapist for advice.
3. Memory Issues
In some cases, these constant feelings of nervousness mess with a person's memory. Anxiety "can harm the brain’s ability to function properly and result in difficulty recalling memories and forming new ones," says Dr. Jackson. If you're feeling less clearheaded in the memory department, then don't hesitate to tell your doctor or therapist. In some cases, managing the anxiety could help improve these memory functions.
4. Cognitive Problems
The feeling of "brain fog" associated with anxiety is a very real phenomenon. "Stress increases cortisol levels and when stress becomes chronic it can also kill brain cells, reduce the size of the brain and negatively impact thinking, learning and decision-making abilities," says Dr. Jackson. It can even cause the brain to have difficulties sending and receiving information, as Dr. Jackson further explains. If your brain feels a bit fuzzy and slow, then discussing this issue with your doctor or a counselor might help manage that underlying anxiety.
5. Heart Palpitations
Constant stress can be tough on a person's heart. "Anxiety can cause a lot of physical symptoms in the body and an important one is palpitations (i.e. a fast, irregular or pounding heartbeat)," as Chirag Shah MD, medical reviewer at PollMed, tells Romper. "In healthy people, palpitations will generally resolve when the anxiety does. However, anxiety episodes can tip people with structural cardiac abnormalities into potentially serious conditions such as a life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia or a heart attack." Concern for heart health is yet another reason to work on managing anxiety levels.
It's no surprise that anxiety can wreck a person's sleep schedule, but the extent of these effects is a bit surprising. "Anxiety causes insomnia by activating the sympathetic nervous system as seen during the fight-or-flight response. This alters our heart rate, breathing and brain waves, affecting the quality and duration of sleep," as board certified psychiatrist Dr. Alex Anastasiou tells Romper. These anxious feelings show up all over the body, making sleep feel like an impossibility.
7. Weakened Immune System
Does it feel like you get sick every time you get super stressed out? The elevated levels of cortisol (AKA stress hormone) associated with anxiety can weaken the immune system, as Dr. Anastasiou explains. Fighting off a cold becomes even more difficult when the immune system is already compromised.
If your palms are kind of clammy even when the air conditioner is on full blast, then it may be related to your stress level. Sweating is another potential physical symptom of anxiety, as Dr. Clarke explains, and it's actually a pretty common issue. In fact, a retrospective of several studies found that 25 to 32 percent of patients with social anxiety also had symptoms of hyperhidrosis (AKA excessive sweating), according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society. Excessive sweating is a treatable condition, however, so reach out to your doctor for advice.
9. Jaw Pain
In some cases, your dentist may be the first person to notice the signs of an anxiety disorder. As it turns out, jaw pain is another physical symptom of anxiety, as Dr. Zarnegar explains. Although this might not sound like a huge issue on its own, jaw pain is often caused by temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), which may be worsened by stress, as explained in WebMD. Your doctor or dentist may recommend treatments such as medication or a mouth guard.
10. Autoimmune Disorders
More serious conditions may be worsened by anxiety as well. "Anxiety can lead to autoimmune disorders, where the body's immune system mysteriously 'misfires' and attacks its own tissues," says Dawn Delgado LMFT, CEDS-S, the national director of clinical development at Center for Discovery. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis may be related to stress in this way.
11. Eating Disorders
Eating disorders aren't just about food. "Anxiety is often an underlying culprit of eating disorders," says Delgado, explaining that disorders such as anorexia nervosa and orthorexia nervosa often have an anxiety-related undercurrent. The eating disorder and feelings of anxiety can sometimes form a dangerous cycle. "Malnutrition that occurs from deprivation of the physical body puts the individual into 'starvation mode,' which is proven to increase anxiety," says Delgado. "This creates a full feedback loop of anxiety that is extremely difficult to break." Sometimes people with this condition can feel stuck.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.
12. Muscle Cramps & Tremors
Sometimes anxiety can show up in a person's muscles. "A particular example of manifested anxiety I’ve seen includes physical symptoms like thigh cramps and leg shaking," says Dr. John Mayer, a licensed clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. "Burning sensations in the muscles can occur, particularly the larger muscles such as thighs and calves, back, arms, and shoulders." If your muscles are burning and it isn't related to a recent workout, then anxiety is possibly the cause.
13. Vision Problems
Even a person's eyes may be damaged by issues associated with anxiety. "Eyesight can be affected, as anxiety-induced muscle tension can blur vision, cause excessive tearing, and more," says Dr. Mayer. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, then visit your eye doctor for a checkup and consider asking about the connection between anxiety and these eye issues.
Although anxiety and its many physical symptoms can be concerning, there are definitely a lot of help and treatment options available for these issues. Whether you get help from a counselor, doctor, or other professional, anxiety does not have to rule your body and mind.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.