December 7, 2022
Effects of Anxiety and Depression on Your Health
Almost everyone experiences some degree of anxiety or depression at various points in life. In the appropriate circumstances, anxiety is actually a typical “fight or flight” response that helps you navigate a precarious or stressful situation with extra precaution or care. It’s also expected to feel lonely, sad or disinterested when faced with difficult, life-changing events.
But when mental health conditions like anxiety interferes with daily life and feelings of overwhelming sadness or emptiness persist, it’s no longer something that can be chalked up to life circumstances — it’s a mental health disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million Americans or almost 20% of the adult population. Anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand — nearly half of adults diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also have some type of depressive disorder.
Living with untreated depression and anxiety can cause significant issues for your mental and physical health. Researchers have discovered how depression and anxiety affect the body, either by making existing health problems worse or causing severe problems to develop.
Anxiety and Physical Health Problems
Constant anxiety is an emotional response, but those feelings of worry or fear also give rise to a physical reaction. When you feel anxious, your neurotransmitters relay these impulses to your sympathetic nervous system, making your muscles contract and your heart rate and respiration increase. It also redirects your blood flow from your abdominal organs to your brain.
When anxiety is the norm rather than the exception, its physical effects can become intensified, leading to physical symptoms like lightheadedness, stomach pain and a high resting heart rate.
Here are some of the effects of anxiety on the body:
An upset stomach is just one of the many effects of anxiety on the body. Constant feelings of anxiety can lead to abdominal cramps or ongoing digestive issues that lead to gas pains, diarrhea or constipation. That’s because anxiety’s physical response has a direct impact on your nervous system, and your nervous system has a direct impact on your bowels.
Chronic anxiety is associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia or upset stomach, which affects up to 30% of the population. With both of these disorders, the nerves that regulate digestion are hypersensitive to stimulation. It’s believed that about half of adults treated for IBS also have an anxiety or depressive disorder.
Anxiety is problematic for your heart. Research shows that living with ongoing and untreated anxiety disorder makes you more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. While symptoms of a panic attack can mimic those of a heart attack, anxiety can actually increase your chances of having heart problems or a stroke.
The effects of anxiety on the body can include the following heart disorders and cardiac risk factors:
- Tachycardia, or rapid heart rate: In severe cases, a fast heart rate can impact your normal heart function and increase the risk of cardiac arrest.
- Increased blood pressure: Chronic high blood pressure can cause coronary disease, weakening of the heart muscle and even heart failure.
- Decreased heart rate variability: This health issue can result in a higher chance of death following an acute heart attack.
Recent research shows that adults with heart disease and an anxiety disorder are at higher risk of having a heart attack than those with heart disease who don’t have an anxiety disorder.
Asthma and Breathing Problems
Anxiety, asthma and other breathing problems are closely related. Anxiety can have many effects on the body, causing rapid, shallow breathing. If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you might be at risk of hospitalization due to anxiety-related complications.
Anxiety can even worsen asthma symptoms and vice versa. The longer your wheezing and coughing continue, the more anxious you can become, worsening your symptoms and making asthma more difficult to control. At the same time, feeling anxious can cause asthma attacks. When you’re anxious, you may feel more emotional or be prone to panic attacks, which can change the way you breathe.
This vicious cycle can cause significant breathing problems and lead to:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nocturnal asthma
- Inability to exercise
- Difficulty concentrating
- Exercise-induced asthma
- Withdrawal from favorite activities
- Changes in appetite
In general, panic attacks and asthma share symptoms like breathlessness, tight chest or chest pain, faster or more noticeable heart rate, feeling faint and dizziness.
Weakened Immune System
Research shows stress and anxiety can impair the immune system and produce an inflammatory response. Chronic anxiety can continually activate the body’s stress response, funneling all bodily resources into the need for immediate protection. As this happens repeatedly, we are more likely to get sick as we cannot fight off existing infections as effectively. In fact, the same study showed that chronic anxiety and stress could increase a person’s risk of infections, metabolic diseases and even cancer.
As anxiety triggers fight-or-flight and releases hormones, it increases your pulse and breathing, causing your brain to get more oxygen to prepare for an intense situation. While your immune system gets a brief boost, the chronic release of these hormones can make it difficult for your body to return to regular functioning. Over time, this can weaken your immune system and leave you susceptible to viral infections and frequent illnesses.
Depression and Physical Health Problems
Depression can lead to physical health problems like obesity, chronic pain and insomnia. As a mood disorder, depression can significantly and negatively affect how you feel, think and behave. People living with depression often find that it interferes with their ability to perform tasks and get through their regular daily routine.
Although researchers haven’t uncovered any single underlying cause of depression, they do know that brain chemistry, hormonal imbalances and genetic factors are often involved. While researchers still have much to learn about the biology of depression, they do know that an untreated depressive disorder can take a significant toll on your personal life as well as your physical health.
The physical symptoms of depression are likely caused by the changes the disorder makes to the brain. For instance, neurotransmitters like serotonin can alter your pain threshold, meaning you may become more sensitive to pain. Serotonin also impacts sleep and sex drive, which can explain how nearly half of people with depression have issues with sex.
Untreated depressive disorders are associated with the following:
Obesity and Weight Gain
Women and men who are depressed are more likely to gain weight or become obese. In the United States, 41% of adults qualify as obese, meaning they have a body mass index (BMI) score of 30 or higher. As BMI increases, so does your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and inflammation. These changes can increase your risk of the following health issues:
- High blood pressure: Having high blood pressure increases your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack or stroke.
- Type 2 diabetes: Being overweight or obese also increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
- Coronary artery disease (CAD): Researchers discovered people who are overweight have a 32% higher risk of developing CAD compared to those at a normal weight.
Obesity and depression are bidirectional, meaning one can cause the other. Often, people with obesity experience depression as a result of inflammation, changes in the brain, insulin resistance and social or cultural factors. At the same time, when you’re depressed, low energy and motivation can result in less activity and exercise, which can lead to obesity.
While people feel the physical effects of depression in a variety of different ways, one of the most common complaints is chronic pain, including headaches and migraines, back pain, arthritis and fibromyalgia pain, defined as pain persisting or recurring for longer than three months.
Chronic pain is both a physical sensation and an emotional condition that’s very similar to depression in that it can have a far-reaching impact on your mood, thoughts and behavior. In fact, the relationship between depression and pain is a tight one — depression can cause and intensify physical pain, and chronic pain can lead to not being able to engage as readily in things you used to enjoy, which can lead to self-isolation and depression. Research shows that up to 60% of chronic pain patients also have depression.
It’s estimated that about 40% of adults with chronic migraines also experience depression, which may occur bidirectionally. Researchers theorize it might have something to do with how depression and migraines cause abnormal levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Further, the combination of depression and chronic pain can make treatment more difficult, having a significant impact on overall functioning than either condition alone.
Insomnia and Sleep Problems
Insomnia is trouble falling or staying asleep and is associated with depression and other mental health disorders. In fact, 75% of people with depression also experience sleep troubles. Insomnia can seriously impact how you function throughout the day, causing you to sleep very little, have difficulties falling asleep or frequently awaken during the night.
With untreated depression, you can experience overwhelming feelings of sadness, worthlessness or guilt. All of these feelings can interrupt sleep and trigger sleep disorders. At the same time, depression can make your mind go into overdrive, causing you to ruminate about situations over which you have no control. With rumination can come high levels of stress and anxiety, fears about your poor sleep habits, low energy throughout the day and a tendency to misperceive sleep.
When your sleep is disrupted or inadequate, you can experience symptoms like increased tension, irritability and vigilance. Poor sleep can lead to fatigue, which can make it difficult for you to carry out tasks throughout the day and lead to worsened fitness. Eventually, you may find yourself in a cycle of inactivity and disrupted sleep, which can lead to both physical and mood-related issues.
The Benefits of Treating Anxiety and Depression
Digestive disorders, heart disease, obesity and chronic pain are just a few of the potential physical effects of anxiety and depression, especially those left untreated. Other health problems associated with depression and anxiety include substance use disorders, respiratory illnesses and thyroid issues.
Here at Advanced Psychiatry Associates, we know that anxiety and depression usually get worse without treatment. But we also understand that both disorders are highly treatable. Psychotherapy, pharmacological therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy are just a few treatment options that can help you achieve full recovery. These solutions can help you reclaim your life and preserve your long-term physical health.