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How Anxiety Hurts Your Health

Stomach, heart and respiratory troubles are all aggravated by fear.

In Franklin Roosevelt’s first address when he was elected President in 1933, Americans faced the beginning of the Great Depression.

He famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts….”

Roosevelt didn’t deny the danger. The economy was in free fall. Yet he urged the nation not to succumb to fear.

This is true in our personal lives as well.

Face the problem, and act, and you'll tame your fear.

But too often we minimize our problems or pretend they don't exist or fret about them without taking action. Sometimes there's not much we can do but wait. Or we may have become accustomed to fear after too many bad experiences. The result can be a state of chronic anxiety that takes a toll on your health.

Many people know that a fit of anxiety can make you nauseated or tired. Did you know that fear can also trigger diarrhea, frequent urination, muscle pain, and headaches?

When you are afraid, your heart rate and breathing speed up, and your muscles tense. This is a useful response if you need to run from danger. But if your fear is vague or you can’t take any immediate action, your bodily response can go on and on. If there's no resolution, no solution, your body suffers. You may see effects on your health, relationships or job performance—and develop more fears.

To avoid this spiral, find and consistently practice ways to calm yourself. Don’t let fear get the upper hand. It’s tempting to hide: bow out of a date or party; avoid new assignments at the office; put off taxes and budgeting or investing; and skip an appointment with the dentist or mammogram. Not surprisingly, if you’re afraid of a dental exam you are more likely to end up with poor dental health. You might overeat or turn to alcohol or another drug to calm you down, bringing on other health problems.

A number of chronic illnesses are aggravated by anxiety. You may not realize how much anxiety is contributing to the illness, while trying very hard to treat it.

People with digestive problems are more anxious than the general population, and research shows that the worse your stomach issues, the more anxious you’re likely to be. Worrying about what you can eat and when you’ll need a bathroom isn’t fun.

Anxiety will aggravate asthma, when the airway becomes inflamed, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), when the airways become less elastic and can’t fill or expel air completely. In one large study, 26 percent of people with a new diagnosis of COPD or who were judged to be at risk, also suffered from depression or anxiety.

Heart disease is strongly linked to anxiety as well. If you become very anxious after a heart attack that you’ll have another one, you are more likely to die of heart disease. People with hypertension may be more likely than the general population to be anxious about social relationships or avoid them. Women, especially, with phobias and panic attacks are more likely to have strokes and heart attacks. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases the risk of heart disease and dying of heart disease by more than 50 percent.

Don’t blame yourself, which will only increase your fear. Anxiety seems to run in families. It can be triggered by traumatic effects, such as a rape or natural disaster, and women may become anxious because of hormonal changes.

About 20 percent of Americans develop an anxiety disorder, like panic attacks, extreme self-consciousness in social situations, phobias, or "generalized anxiety disorder" when you're afraid in the moment and dread the future most of the time. If you think anxiety has become destructive to you, or anyone under your care, do get help from a mental health professional.

A mental health professional will help you choose among remedies and keep up good habits. You might try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which teaches you to think differently about situations in your life; or psychotherapy to explore how your situation or history may be influencing your mindset. There are medications designed to fight anxiety, such as clonazepam (Klonopin), alprazolam (Xanax) and buspirone (BuSpar), and anti-depressants, which can also fight anxiety or panic disorder. Exercise, relaxation techniques, changes in diet, and keeping to a sleep routine can all make a big difference too.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.

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