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The short answer is yes, anxiety can make you physically sick. Too much anxiety can lead to symptoms of physical illness, worsen existing illness, or pre-dispose you toward illness. Our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors all interact with and impact our physical function, and vice versa. The impact of uncontrolled anxiety can threaten your health over time. This is one reason why anxiety must be managed, ideally through a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.
Understanding how anxiety effects your body
Anxiety can manifest as a panic attack. A panic attack is a sudden shove into the Fight/Flight/Freeze (F3) mode, or sympathetic arousal.
When we are faced with a threat to our survival, such as a dump truck locking up the brakes six feet away as we cross the street, our Sympathetic branch of our nervous system will activate and put us into F3. The response most conducive to our survival will be to get out of the way, or flee. To facilitate this, we will experience an adrenaline dump.
The adrenal glands sit atop our kidneys. They will release the hormone adrenaline, which will:
This is the F3 response, which gives us the ability to withdraw from a threat, engage a threat, or lock up and be unable to move (Seltzer, 2015).
Depending on the circumstances, any one of these responses can be conducive to our survival.
Once the threat has been escaped, defeated, or left, the F3 response is reversed through the action of the Parasympathetic nervous system.
This has been called the Rest and Digest (R & D) response. Our muscles relax, and heart rate and blood pressure goes down. Our pupils return to the normal size for the amount of ambient light, and our digestion resumes. This interaction between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems maintains a sense of internal equilibrium in our bodies.
Chronic Anxiety & Physical sickness
Here is the problem with anxiety:
Imagine being in that almost- hit- by- a- dump -truck feeling all the time.
It is too much. It is overwhelming. Instead of in balance, we are off-balance.
Chronic lower grade anxiety can wear you down. By the end of the day, you feel exhausted and achy. This is due to muscle tension, and your body working harder than it needs to all day. Anxiety can prevent you from sleeping well, so you don't feel rested the next day, and the cycle gets worse.
Anxiety is an emotion. It must be available in the correct amounts for us to function well.
There are individual differences in how much anxiety one experiences.
Too little anxiety can lead to reckless behavior or a lack of urgency about accomplishing a task. A degree of anxiety motivates you to wear a seat-belt, look both ways when crossing the street, and to delay gratification to get work done.
Too much anxiety can make us sick. We need to be in the Goldilocks Zone – not too much, not too little, but just right- for anxiety to serve us well, instead of making us sick.
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David A. Porter has a Master’s degree in Psychology from Sage Graduate School, 19 years clinical experience in a variety of settings including private practice, community mental health clinics, a MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) Program and a program for the severely/chronically mentally ill. He also has 22 concurrent years of teaching experience as an adjunct instructor at three colleges. He has written over 280 behavioral science, neuroscience, culinary and political articles, contributed two chapters to a book on bullying, and written five books on topics that include criminal psychology, motivation & success, and political commentary.