Health Problems That Can Cause Anxiety
Amy Myers, MD
Amy Myers, M.D. is a functional medicine physician, trained and certified by The Institute of Functional Medicine. Dr. Myers earned her Doctor of Medicine at the LSU Health Science Center, and completed her Emergency Medicine residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Dr. Myers retired from her functional medicine clinic, Austin UltraHealth, where she served thousands of patients, to empower those who were failed by conventional medicine. Shes a 2x New York Times bestselling author, and the founder and CEO of the health & lifestyle e-commerce brand, Amy Myers MD®.
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Do you experience panic attacks, anxiety, or depression? And do these feelings seem to come out of nowhere, unrelated to life events or whats going on around you? If so, its quite possible your anxiety is a symptom of an underlying health issue. From gut imbalances to thyroid dysfunction and even cardiovascular disease, anxiety is often the first sign that there is more going on inside your body.
In fact, an article in Psychiatric Times lists over 47 medical illnesses that may initially present as anxiety or other mood imbalances.
Treating patients with anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants could actually be masking what is going on underneath, and its only until the physical issues are addressed that the mental and emotional problems will resolve.
Improving Your Ability To Handle Stress
Get moving. Upping your activity level is one tactic you can employ right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully .
Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when youre feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who improve your mood and dont let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you dont have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.
Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your sensessight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
Appetite Changes And Weight Gain
Changes in appetite are common during times of stress.
When you feel stressed out, you may find yourself with no appetite at all or overeating without noticing.
One small 2006 study of 272 female college students found that 81 percent reported that they experienced changes in appetite when they were stressed out, with 62 percent stating they had an increase in appetite .
Changes in appetite may also cause fluctuations in weight during stressful periods. For example, a study involving 1,355 people in the United States found that stress was associated with weight gain in adults already living with extra weight .
A third study from 2017 found that individuals with higher cortisol and insulin levels and higher levels of chronic stress were more likely to gain weight in the future . However, the study was limited in the scope of research in that participants were predominantly white females.
While these studies show an association between stress and changes in appetite or weight, more studies are needed to understand other possible factors are involved and how stress impacts different people.
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Health Problems Related To Stress
What are some of the most significant health problems related to stress? Here’s a sampling.
How Does Stress Impact The Body
Not all stress is bad. In fact, many of the responses to stress such as quickened heartbeat, increased breath intake, and heightened brain function are all responses aimed to help a person survive a dangerous situation. Some stressors can even be positive, and motivate a person to be successful at work or achieve a hard-to-reach goal.
The impacts of chronic stress, however, are much more severe, as those sometimes life-saving responses to stressors have an impact on other systems. For example, when faced with periods of chronic stress, the bodys immune system function is lowered, and the digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems no longer function the way they should.
These problems typically subside once our body suspects that the threat has passed, but if the source of stress is constant, a number of physical and mental health issues can manifest.
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How To Take Control Of Your Stress
The good news is that you can avoid health problems associated with chronic worry by learning how to manage your stress.
Dr. Borland suggests the following steps to help you cope with stress:
- Exercise each day. Do some form of exercise each day, whether strength training, aerobic exercise or walking your dog.
- Meditate and breathe deeply. Repeat a calming mantra or visualize a serene setting.
- Eat healthy. Focus on a balanced diet. Also, limit your caffeine and sugar intake, which can key you up and contribute to anxiety and insomnia.
- Stay in contact with people who support you. Get support from your spouse or significant other, parents, siblings and friends.
- Take part in fun activities with family and friends. Smile, laugh and be as emotionally present as you can.
- Seek calming, creative activities. Try painting or drawing, gardening or cooking.
- Be grateful. Focus on areas of life for which you are appreciative. Pay attention to what makes you feel grateful.
- Talk to your doctor and, if necessary, seek professional mental health treatment. Dont hesitate to reach out to your doctor, especially if you are coping with depression or anxiety.
Worry is a part of life for everyone, and this past year has been extra stressful for many. But by taking steps to proactively manage your stress, you can help make sure that your daily worries dont end up hurting your health.
Why Does Stress Affect Me Physically
You might find that your first clues about being stressed are physical signs, such as tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach.
There could be many reasons for this, as when we feel stressed we often find it hard to sleep or eat well, and poor diet and lack of sleep can both affect our physical health. This in turn can make us feel more stressed emotionally.
Also, when we feel anxious, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. . If you’re often stressed then you’re probably producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term.
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Do Women React To Stress Differently Than Men Do
Yes, studies show that women are more likely than men to experience symptoms of stress. Women who are stressed are more likely than men who are stressed to experience depression and anxiety.21 Experts do not fully know the reason for the differences, but it may be related to how mens and womens bodies process stress hormones. Long-term stress especially is more likely to cause problems with moods and anxiety in women.22
What Are The Symptoms Of Stress
Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary. Symptoms can be vague and may be the same as those caused by medical conditions. So it is important to discuss them with your doctor. You may experience any of the following symptoms of stress.
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
- Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself , lonely, worthless, and depressed
- Avoiding others
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Behavioral symptoms of stress include:
- Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
- Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
- Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
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Stress And Physical Illness
When we feel under stress, our body kicks into high gear to deal with the threat. Our heartbeat, breathing rate and blood pressure all go up. The longer we feel stressed, the greater the demand on our body.The more often we are placed under stress, the more often we have to use energy to cope. There is growing evidence that stress may contribute to physical illness such as cardiovascular disease , high blood pressure, proneness to infection and chronic fatigue.Whatever the cause, physical diseases need appropriate medical management before any attempt is made at stress management. Discuss with your doctor how stress management may be used to support treatment of your physical symptoms.
The Effects Of Anxiety On The Body
Anxiety is a normal part of life. For example, you may have felt anxiety before addressing a group or in a job interview.
In the short term, anxiety increases your breathing and heart rate, concentrating blood flow to your brain, where you need it. This very physical response is preparing you to face an intense situation.
If it gets too intense, however, you might start to feel lightheaded and nauseous. An excessive or persistent state of anxiety can have a devastating effect on your physical and mental health.
Anxiety disorders can happen at any stage of life, but they usually begin by middle age. Women are more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men, says the National Institute of Mental Health .
Stressful life experiences may increase your risk for an anxiety disorder, too. Symptoms may begin immediately or years later. Having a serious medical condition or a substance use disorder can also lead to an anxiety disorder.
There are several types of anxiety disorders. They include:
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Gut Infections Or Imbalances
The gut isnt called your second brain for nothing. Lining the walls of your gut is a mesh-like network of neurons that causes sensations such as nervous butterflies and a pit in your stomachfeelings that are an innate part of your psychological stress response. As many as 90% of these cells carry information to your brain rather than receiving messages from it, making your gut as influentialor even more influentialto your mood as your head is.
Chances are, if youre suffering from anxiety or other emotional distress, the answer lies in your gut. Here are some of the most common gut issues that may be behind your anxiety.
While there are many gut infections and conditions that play a role in mood imbalances, the number one cause I see in my clinic is Candida, or yeast overgrowth. Although you naturally have a small amount of Candida in your gut to aid in digestion and nutrient absorption, when the balance of good bacteria to yeast is disrupted from a round of antibiotics, a diet high in refined carbohydrates, excessive alcohol use, birth control, or chronic stress, the yeast is able to multiply unchecked. The Candida then coats the lining of your intestinal tract and suppresses your ability to produce or secrete serotonin, leading to anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
Undiagnosed Food Sensitivities
The Link Between Stress And Illness
The critical factor associated with stress is its chronic effect over time. Chronic stressors include daily hassles, frustration of traffic jams, work overload, financial difficulties, marital arguments or family problems. There are, of course, many more things that can cause stress, but these are the stressors commonly encountered in daily life. The pent-up anger we hold inside ourselves toward any of these situations, or the guilt and resentment we hold toward others and ourselves, all produce the same effects on the hypothalamus. Instead of discharging this stress, however, we hold it inside where its effects become cumulative.
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Stress And Your Health
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.
Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health.
Toxic Mold Or Mycotoxin Exposure
One of the most serious problems I encounter in my practice is mold toxicity, which can present as a myriad of psychiatric issues including anxiety, depression, brain fog, and insomnia, along with physical symptoms such as allergies, asthma, headaches, and chronic sinus infections
About 25% of the population is unable to effectively clear toxic mold from their systems , and most people with toxic mold poisoning dont even realize that mycotoxins are affecting them!
Allowed to build up, these mycotoxins can wreak havoc on your health long after exposure. Ive personally suffered from toxic mold exposure on multiple occasions, and have been forced to move apartments and offices and get rid of the majority of my belongings because of how severely the exposure affected my health. If youve gone through the four pillars of The Myers Way® and your anxiety or depression have still not resolved, you might be dealing with a mold issue. I go over how to handle mold exposure in The Autoimmune Solution, and you can also check out my podcast episode on the subject.
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What Are Some Strategies For Stress Relief
You cant avoid stress, but you can stop it from becoming overwhelming by practicing some daily strategies:
- Exercise when you feel symptoms of stress coming on. Even a short walk can boost your mood.
- At the end of each day, take a moment to think about what youve accomplished not what you didnt get done.
- Set goals for your day, week and month. Narrowing your view will help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.
- Consider talking to a therapist or your healthcare provider about your worries.
Signs And Symptoms Of Stress Overload
The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You dont notice how much its affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. Thats why its important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.
- Other mental or emotional health problems
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate
- Loss of sex drive
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from others
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits
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How Can You Help Yourself
If you’re feeling stressed, there are some things you can try to feel less tense and overwhelmed.
1. Recognise when stress is a problem
Its important to connect the physical and emotional signs youre experiencing to the pressures you are faced with. Dont ignore physical warning signs such as tense muscles, tiredness, headaches or migraines.
Think about whats causing your stress. Sort them into issues with a practical solution, things that will get better with time and things you can’t do anything about. Take control by taking small steps towards the things you can improve.
Make a plan to address the things that you can. This might involve setting yourself realistic expectations and prioritising essential commitments. If you feel overwhelmed, ask for help and say no to things you cant take on.
2. Think about where you can make changes
Are you taking on too much? Could you hand over some things to someone else? Can you do things in a more leisurely way? You may need to prioritise things and reorganise your life so youre not trying to do everything at once.
3. Build supportive relationships
Find close friends or family who can offer help and practical advice can support you in managing stress. Joining a club or a course can help to expand your social network and encourage you to do something different. Activities like volunteering can change your perspective and have a beneficial impact on your mood.
4. Eat healthily
5. Be aware of your smoking and drinking
8. Be mindful