Even though a reported 20% of the American population is now on mental health drugs, we still don’t talk about the related conditions and diseases nearly enough. Yes, depression makes the headlines often and people are finally becoming more open about it, but what other other mental health conditions like anxiety? That’s one that affects 40 million adults in the U.S., but do you really know what it is and how to tell if you are suffering from it? And do you know how it can affect your physical health? To find out, we consulted Dr. Catherine Ulbricht, founder of Natural Standard Research Collaboration, clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Natural Standard, The Authority on Integrative Medicine. Here is what she had to say:
What exactly is anxiety and why don’t we hear as much about it as depression?
Anxiety is an unpleasant complex combination of emotions including fear, worry, and nervousness. It originates from a person’s often excessive and unrealistic thoughts about a perceived threat, event, or other situation and may hinder physical and psychological abilities. Anxiety disorders are sometimes more difficult to diagnose than depression, and as a result may be misdiagnosed and under-reported.
Is anxiety as common as depression?
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults age 18 and older in the United States. This totals 18% of the U.S. population and women are 60% more likely to be affected than men. Interestingly enough though, only 39% of those with anxiety disorders are receiving treatment.
If someone is suffering from anxiety, how would they know it? Wouldn’t some people just tend to think they are more high-strung or nervous by nature?
While most people are affected by some form of mild anxiety over common life events, generalized or severe forms of anxiety are characterized by more than typical everyday worries. They’re often accompanied by specific physical and psychological symptoms. More extreme types of anxiety disorders may cause the person to become unable to perform normal everyday activities, such as performing their job or going grocery shopping, and it may seriously affect both short-term and long-term physical health. A diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder is given when a person worries excessively about everyday problems for at least 6 months.
We know there are a number of ways anxiety affects us mentally, but how about physically? Can it wreak havoc on our bodies?
Of course. The primary symptoms of anxiety disorders are fear and worry. However, anxiety disorders are also characterized by additional emotional and physical symptoms. Physical symptoms of anxiety negatively affect the brain, heart, lungs, muscles, stomach, and overall bodily functions. This may lead to inability to function normally and may seriously affect many systems in the body over time.
What are some of the short-terms effects anxiety can have on our bodies?
Short-term effects of anxiety affect many organs and systems in the body, including the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological, respiratory, and muscular systems. Cardiovascular symptoms involve the heart and blood vessels and include heart palpitations (irregular heartbeat) and angina (chest pain). Gastrointestinal symptoms involve the stomach and digestive tract and include stomach upset, nausea, and diarrhea. Neurological symptoms involve the brain and nerves and include vertigo (dizziness), insomnia (inability to sleep), irritability, hot flashes or chills, and overall mental confusion. Respiratory symptoms involve the lungs and include shortness of breath or difficult, labored breathing. Muscular symptoms include tremors and muscle tension or aches.
What about longer-term effects? How can unresolved anxiety affect our physical health after months or years?
Long-term effects of misdiagnosed, unresolved, or inadequately treated anxiety involve the same areas, but in a more extreme form. For example, the cardiovascular effects may include hypertension, recurrent heart attacks, and worsening of mitral valve prolapse. Gastrointestinal effects may include worsening of indigestion, heartburn, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome. Neurological effects may include chronic tension headaches and worsening of other pre-existing psychological conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. Endocrine effects may include worsening of adrenal gland dysfunction, blood sugar disorders including hyperglycemia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Effects on the respiratory system may include worsening of pre-existing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
What are some of the most extreme ways anxiety can affect our physical health?
Anxiety has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack. Anxiety disorders may also lead to development of alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, delusions, and an increased risk for suicide. Individuals with some forms of anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, may experience physical injury such as skin problems from excessive washing, injuries from repetitive physical acts, and hair loss from repeated hair pulling.
OK, how about treatments for all of this? What are some of the best ways to deal with these physical effects?
Treatments are specific to the cause of anxiety, but can include counseling, psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy. You can also incorporate physical exercise, relaxation therapies for stress reduction, such as meditation, yoga, and deep-breathing exercises, eating a healthy diet and making sure you get adequate sleep. Medications, including anti-anxiety agents and antidepressants or thyroid-regulating medication can also help.
Also, there are other alternative therapies, such as St. John’s wort, acupuncture and certain herbs, but those have unclear or conflicting reports of effectiveness.
Anxiety may have very negative effects on work, school, and relationships, and may decrease the individual’s overall health. It affects each person differently, and so it is necessary to consult with a healthcare provider for treatments specific to one’s individual condition. Individuals experiencing severe symptoms that are not easily treated or that do not quickly subside, should seek immediate medical attention.