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How Is Health Anxiety Affects The Body?

There are a lot of people with health anxiety who are often unable to function or have a quality of life (QoL) due to their fears and apprehensions. These individuals become preoccupied with bodily functions like breathing or heartbeat, minor physical abnormalities like skin blemishes, or physical sensations such as headaches and stomachaches.

How Is Health Anxiety Affects The Body?
Photo: Woman Having Health Anxiety | InStyleHealth

These people might be even worried about a specific organ like their heart or disease they heard from the news. There are a lot of people who are hesitant to seek mental health treatment due to the fact that they strongly believe their condition really comes from a medical illness or condition.

What Are the Effects of Anxiety on the Body?

Every person has anxiety from time to time; however, having chronic anxiety will interfere one’s quality of life (QoL). Although perhaps most recognized for behavioral changes, anxiety will have serious consequences on one’s overall physical health condition.

Here, you can learn more about the major effects of anxiety on your body.

The Effects of Anxiety On Your Body

Having anxiety is but a normal part of life. For instance, you may be anxious or have felt anxiety before addressing a group or even during a job interview.

Anxiety increases your breathing and heart rate, in the short-term, concentrating blood flow to your brain where it is needed. The physical response is prepping you to face an intense or intimidating situation.

However, if the situation gets too intense you might start to feel lightheaded and nauseous. Having an excessing or persistent state of anxiety will have a debilitating effect on your mental and physical health.

These anxiety disorders will occur at any stage of life, although they usually start by middle age. According to study from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), women are more like to have an anxiety disorder compared with men.

Having stressful life experiences heightens risk for an anxiety disorder. Symptoms may start to show immediately or a few years later. Anxiety disorder can also be caused by having a serious medical condition or a substance use disorder.

There are some types of anxiety disorders and these include the following:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder or GAD is characterized by excessive anxiety for no logical reason. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates GAD affects about 6.8 million American adults per year.

Generalized anxiety disorder or GAD is identified when extreme worry about various things that lasts up to six months or even longer. If you have a mild case of generalized anxiety disorder, you are most likely to complete your normal day-to-day activities. The more severe cases, though, will have a deep impact on your quality of life (QoL).

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

Social anxiety disorder is a type of disorder that involves a paralyzing fear of social situations and of being judged or humiliated by other people. This severe social phobia will leave one feeling ashamed and feeling of being alone.

According to ADAA, there are about 15 million American adults live with social anxiety disorder. The typical age at onset is around 13. And more than 1/3 of people with social anxiety disorder wait a decade or even more before seeking medical assistance.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD develops after experiencing or witnessing traumatic situations. Symptoms will begin shortly or at times will be delayed for years. Common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD include war, natural disasters, or a physical attack. PTSD events can be triggered without warning.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Those people with OCD may feel getting overwhelmed with the desire to perform particular rituals (compulsions) over and over again, or experience intrusive and unwanted thoughts that can be distressing (obsessions).

The Common Compulsion examples include habitual handwashing, counting, or checking something. Common Obsessions include concerns about aggressive impulses, need for symmetry, and cleanliness.


Phobias are disorders that include fear of tight spaces (claustrophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of spiders (arachnophobia), and many others. You may have a strong urge to avoid these feared objects or situations that triggers fear.

Panic Disorder

A panic disorder causes panic attacks, spontaneous feelings of anxiety, terrified, or impending trouble. Physical symptoms of panic disorder may include heart palpitations, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Panic disorder can happen at any time. A person can also have another type of anxiety disorder along with panic disorder.

Central Nervous System

These long-term anxiety and panic attacks will cause your brain to release stress hormones on a regular basis. The situation may increase the frequency of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and depression.

Your brain floods your nervous system with hormones and chemicals, when you feel anxious and stressed. These chemicals were designed to help you respond to a threat. Examples of these chemicals released are adrenaline and cortisol.

Long-term exposure to stress hormones; however, can be more harmful to your physical in the long-run despite being helpful on occasional high-stress events. For instance, long-term exposure to cortisol can lead to weight gain.

Cardiovascular System

Anxiety disorders will cause rapid heart rate, heart palpitations, and chest pain. A person will also be at an increased risk of high blood pressure or hypertension and heart disease. If a person already has a heart disease, anxiety disorders will heighten the risk of cardiovascular events.

Excretory and Digestive Systems

Anxiety can affect your excretory and digestive systems. One may have stomachache, nausea, diarrhea, and other digestive problems. Loss of appetite also likely occurs.

A correlation may exist between anxiety disorders and the development of irritable bowel syndrome or IBS following a bowel infection. IBS will cause vomiting, diarrhea or even constipation.

Immune System

Anxiety will trigger ones flight-or-fight stress response and release a flood of chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline into one’s nervous system.

Temporarily, this increases one’s impulse and breathing rate, so the brain will get more oxygen. This sets oneself to respond appropriately to any intense situation. The immune system will event get a brief boost. The body returns to normal functioning, even with occasional stress, when the stressful situation passes.

However, if one feels anxious and stressed repeatedly for quite some time, one’s body never gets the signal to normal functioning. This situation will weaken one’s immune system, leaving the person more vulnerable to frequent illnesses and viral infections. To make things worse, regular vaccines will not work as well if someone has anxiety.

Respiratory System

If one has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, the person will be at an increased risk of hospitalization from anxiety-related complications, because anxiety causes rapid, shallow breathing. Anxiety will also make asthma symptoms even worse.

Other Effects of Anxiety in Your Body

  • Anxiety disorder will cause other symptoms, such as the following:
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension
  • Social isolation

If a person has a PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, one may experience flashbacks, reliving the traumatic experience repeatedly. A person will easily get angry or get startled, and become even emotionally withdrawn. Other symptoms may include nightmares, insomnia, and feeling of sadness.

What Is Stress?

Stress is defined as the body’s reaction to harmful situations whether the situation is real or perceived. When you feel threatened or intimidated, a chemical reaction takes place in your body that will allow you to act in a way to avoid injury. The reaction is known as the “fight-or-flight,” or simply the stress response.  Through this stress response, your heart rate increases, you are breathing faster, muscles tighten, and blood pressure increases.

On the other hand, stress may mean different things to different people. The causes of stress in one person is of little concern to the other. There are people who are better at handling stress than others. Also, not all stress is considered bad, stress actually will help you accomplish tasks and prevent you from getting injured. For instance, stress is what allows you to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting the car in front of you, which is actually a good thing though.

Human bodies are created or designed to handle small doses of stress. However, our bodies are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress without ill effects.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

Stress will affect the quality aspects of your life especially your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. There is no part of the human body that is immune to stress. However, since people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress also vary. Stress symptoms may be vague and may also be the same as those caused by medical and health conditions. Thus, it is very important to speak with your doctor.

Can Health Anxiety Cause Symptoms?

Health Anxiety can cause symptoms like severe headaches or rapid heartbeat or palpitations, and these can be mistaken for signs of illnesses or medical conditions.

Illness Anxiety Disorder

Illness anxiety disorder also known as hypochondriasis or hypochondria or health anxiety, is the condition where worrying excessively that one may become seriously ill. A person may have no physical symptoms or may believe that normal body sensations or minor symptoms are signs of severe health conditions, despite a thorough medical exam does not show a serious medical condition.

A person may experience extreme anxiety that body sensations like muscle twitching or fatigue, are correlated with a specific, serious medical condition or illness. Excessive anxiety rather than the physical symptom itself will lead to severe distress that will eventually affect the individual’s quality of life.

Illness anxiety disorder or health anxiety is a long-term medical condition that will fluctuate in severity. This condition may increase or worsen with age or during times of unmanageable stress. However, psychological counseling or psychotherapy and at times, proper medication will help alleviate one’s anxiety.

What Are the Symptoms of Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Symptoms of illness anxiety disorder involve worrying or concern with the idea that you are seriously ill, based on normal body sensations (such as a noisy stomach) or minor signs (such as a minor rash). Signs and symptoms may include the following:

  • Avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks and issues
  • Being easily alarmed about the health status
  • Being overly concerned with having or getting a serious disease or health condition
  • Constantly talking about your health and possible illnesses
  • Finding little or no reassurance from doctor visits or negative test results
  • Frequently making medical appointments for reassurance or avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness
  • Frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses
  • Having so much distress about possible illnesses that it is difficult for you to function normally
  • Repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness or disease
  • Worrying excessively about a specific medical condition or your risk of developing a medical condition because it runs in the family
  • Worrying that minor symptoms or body sensations mean you have a serious illness

When To See Your Doctor?

Symptoms can be related to health problems and it is very important to be evaluated by your doctor especially if this has not been done already.

How to Care for a Loved One with Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety will cause real distress for the person, and giving reassurance is not always helpful. Occasionally, giving reassurance will even make things worse especially for the person who is suffering health anxiety. It can be very frustrating and will cause stress on families. You need to encourage a loved one to consider a mental health referral to learn ways to manage with illness anxiety disorder.

What are the Causes of Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Although the exact cause of illness anxiety disorder is not clear; however, the following factors play a role in developing illness anxiety disorder:

  • Beliefs – one may have a difficult time tolerating uncertainty over uncomfortable or unusual body sensations. This could lead to misinterpreting that all body sensations are serious, so a person will search for evidence to confirm that a person has a serious disease or illness.
  • Family – a person may be more likely to have health anxiety if the parents who worried too much about their own health or your health.
  • Past experience – One may have had experience with serious illness in childhood, so physical sensations may be terrifying to the individual.

What Are the Risk Factors of Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Illness anxiety disorder usually starts in the early or middle adulthood and may get worse with age. Frequently for older individuals, health-related anxiety will usually focus on the fear of losing their memory.

Risk factors for illness anxiety disorder may include the following:

  • A serious childhood illness or a parent with a serious illness
  • A time of major life stress
  • Complications
  • Excessive health-related internet use
  • Financial problems due to excessive health care visits and medical bills
  • Having another mental health disorder, such as somatic symptom disorder, other anxiety disorders, depression or a personality disorder
  • History of abuse as a child
  • Illness anxiety disorder may be associated or correlated with:
  • Personality traits, such as having a tendency toward being a worrier
  • Problems functioning in daily life, possibly even resulting in disability
  • Relationship or family problems because excessive worrying can frustrate others
  • Threat of a serious illness that turns out not to be serious
  • Work-related performance problems or excessive absences

Somatic Symptom Disorder

Somatic symptom disorder is a related health anxiety concern which involves focusing on the disabling nature of physical symptoms like pain or dizziness, without the worry that these symptoms may represent a specific illness or medical condition.

If you have problems with anxiety, immediately seek a professional advice or talk to your doctor to help stop symptoms from getting worse and impairing your quality of life (QoL).

You need to learn how to recognize when you are stressed and how this affects your body or well-being, and regularly practice stress management and relaxation techniques in dealing with stress.

You need to stick with a given treatment plan, so you can manage and help prevent relapses or worsening of symptoms.

Can Health Anxiety Be Cured?

Yes! Health anxiety can interfere with your life; however, it is highly treatable.

Spending hours online searching for health information. When medical tests returns showing that a person is healthy, it doesn’t make the person feel better. At the back of the person’s mind, the person still feel like something is wrong or off.

If this situation sounds like you or a loved one, it can be potentially a health anxiety problem.

According to experts, people with health anxiety tend to fear for severe illness, such as HIV, cancer or dementia. They tend to worry far less about a potential strep throat, or getting common colds.

Health anxiety is a medical condition which causes healthy people to be obsessive that they are ill or having serious illness even when they have no symptoms.

Having fear that they have a serious illness will disrupt all aspects of their life. This can even lead them to seek out unnecessary testing, wasting hours in the doctor’s clinic, and spending days worrying.

Health anxiety is considered a relatively common condition, it is known to affect 4% to 5% of the people. However, experts believe this may be underreported and the percentage could potentially be closer or even higher than 12%. Health anxiety seems to also affect equally both men and women.

Take note, not all health worries signify health anxiety. Getting concerned about your health is not the same as having health anxiety. It is normal for us to be worried about our health from time to time. You may even wonder if your stomachache could be a sign of a more serious health condition. If you happen to have had severe medical condition previously, it cannot be avoided that you may become anxious about getting an imaging scan or any laboratory testing.

For people with health anxiety, they often misinterpret normal physical symptoms and attribute those symptoms with some serious health conditions. Symptoms produced due to anxiety include muscle pain, heart rate changes, chest pain, palpitations, dizziness, headaches – it can also increase existing anxiety regarding one’s health condition.

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