What are the effects of anxiety on the body?

Effects of anxiety on the body - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Absolutely everyone is anxious from time to time. That is because anxiety is a perfectly normal human emotion.

In fact, without it, human beings would not have survived as well as we have – if at all. Anxiety is to help us survive.

For instance, back in time most of our ancestors lived among many more wild beasts that posed a threat. Feeling anxious at seeing such as a wild boar or bear helped them focus on what they needed to do to avoid the potential danger to their life.

Even today, we have similar moments such as seeing a dog off its lead. We need to feel some anxiety: it gets our attention to concentrate on what we need to do to stay safe.

Then, as many people in our modern world live in cities, there are endless things to look out for – from crossing a road to stepping onto a busy escalator. Anxiety is readying us for a fight-or-flight reaction.

But in mental health terms, anxiety can be devastating. Anxiety that goes beyond its purpose, that is excessive, makes an increasing number of people’s lives unmanageable. 

It leaves people more prone to depression, stress, and developing an addiction to such as alcohol, drugs or an unhealthy addictive behavior in a bid to deal with negative feelings.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety can be defined as a sense of unease or worry about something with an uncertain outcome. No wonder some people seem to live in a constant state of anxiety as so many things in life are uncertain.

In fact, life itself is uncertain. So anxiety becomes a vicious cycle for many people who are anxious – and that anxiety causes increasingly more anxiety.

The actual word “anxious” comes from Latin anxius, which means “to choke”. Anyone who has ever had bad anxiety – especially its most extreme form which comes as a panic attack – will totally relate to this word derivation. When we pay attention to anxious thoughts it often feels as if we cannot catch our breath.

What causes anxiety?

Anxiety is a type of fear, created by the thoughts someone is having and then focusing on. Anything that we focus on grows bigger: due to our magnifying minds.

This sort of anxiety is not what anyone is choosing. But it is something that they’re generating.

What most people do not realize is that we actually have a choice over which of our thoughts we let in. Those we let in will affect how we feel in a negative or positive way.

It takes time to learn how to observe our thoughts – and to know that we are not our thoughts, but that we are in fact the observer of them.

Research carried out by the University of Southern California’s Laboratory Of Neuroimaging concluded that the average adult has around 70,000 thoughts every day. When you learn how to observe thoughts you know that you do have a choice over which ones to pay attention to and which ones to send away.

Our thoughts are in fact a series of choices. As motor manufacturer Henry Ford declared: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

When anxiety becomes a major problem is when it is a nervous disorder that’s marked by excessive apprehension. GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) is a chronic condition diagnosed in someone who feels extremely anxious about a great many things – meaning they feel almost constantly anxious every day.

It is a debilitating way to live. It is also a way of living that is unsustainable – and over time the consequences can be severe.

Many anxiety sufferers grew up in a house where they were unwittingly taught how to be anxious. This may well have gone on for generations.

As children, we are learning everything we can about the world around us. If we constantly hear anxious thoughts verbalized this is what we are being taught to focus on.

If both parents or one of our parent’s first reactions to any idea or suggestion was usually or always “let’s name what can go wrong with that” or a variant, this is how we start to think. We take this with us out into the big wide world when we leave home, and then pass it on to our children if we start a family.

As well, if the family home was more like a war zone than a sanctuary it should be, someone is more likely to grow up into someone who suffers from anxiety. Likewise, if they experienced traumas of some kind.

Mind over matter

Ask any medical expert whether being excessively anxious will affect someone’s physical wellbeing and the vast majority will say an emphatic yes. However, many people are still surprised to find out that mental health has such a major impact on physical wellbeing. 

Maybe a reason for that is because physical effects usually take months or years to show. But we are not designed to be anxious as often as many people are today.

Anxiety was supposed to serve a purpose, and last briefly and only occasionally. It was certainly not meant to be an almost constant state of being.

Most people have heard about the placebo effect, a beneficial consequence produced by a placebo treatment or drug that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself. So it must be due to the patient’s inner belief in that treatment or drug and their subsequent thinking that they are going to get well actually making them well.

Yet there is also the opposite of this that most people have never heard about: the nocebo effect. If we can become well by the power of our thoughts and belief, it figures that we must also be able to do that in reverse. We can make ourselves unwell by our inner beliefs and the power of our thinking – and far too many people do this.

What physical symptoms does anxiety cause?

Anxiety symptoms and effects - Tikvah Lake Recovery


Anxiety causes palpitations, chest pain, and a rapid heart rate. It increases the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.


Anxiety leads to swift and shallow breathing. This stops the body from working as well as it should. For those with health problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, it is likely to make their symptoms worse.


Anxiety makes the brain flood our nervous systems with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that can help us deal with a threat. Chronic anxiety means these hormones are released much more than they are designed to be released. This can cause dizziness and headaches. Cortisol is also believed to contribute to putting on weight.


Anxiety limits how effectively our body functions – and that includes our digestive systems. This can mean nausea, stomach aches, constipation, diarrhea, and it’s believed to be behind some people’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Immune system

Anxiety releases a flood of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which tell the body something dangerous might be about to happen – or that it is already happening. Immediately this increases pulse and breathing rate to get us ready for fight or flight.

Any functions that are not essential at that moment are switched off or limited. This is because anxiety was created to help us survive – so the vital thing is anything that aids in fight or flight.

So it’s no use the immune system working well at the expense of a person in danger not being able to defend themselves or flee to safety when threatened. But this was always meant to be only for a specific and brief occasion.

When someone is anxious all or most of the time, their body never returns to its usual functioning state. That means the immune system is not working as well as it should.

That means they are more vulnerable to viral infections and frequent illnesses. It means when they do succumb to illness they will not be able to beat it so efficiently and swiftly, or even at all.

Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Stomach aches.
  • Muscle tension and soreness.
  • Headaches and migraines.
  • Sight problems.
  • Palpitations.
  • Breathlessness or a sense of being choked.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Constipation.
  • Bloating.
  • Weight gain.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Dizziness.
  • Concentration difficulties.
  • Fatigue.
  • Psoriasis or other skin problems.
  • Hair loss.
  • Tremor and shakes.
  • Erectile dysfunction.
  • Menstrual irregularities.
  • Overall weakened immune system.
  • Sleeping problems.

The body says no 

So it can be seen that our minds are powerful. They cause all manner of changes in our bodies.

Consider how someone who is scared of flying or spiders could make themselves sweat and physically sick just by thinking about their fear. This can be despite them being miles away from an airport or with no spider in sight at all.

Our ancestors were perhaps more aware than us of this great power of the mind over matter. For example, the Bible says: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…” and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita says: “You are what you believe in.”

One of the world’s bestselling books on recovery, When The Body Says No by practitioner and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté, states how sickness can be the body’s way of saying no to what the mind will not or cannot accept or admit.

“It’s extremely tricky to talk about something like ’cause’ without sounding like I am pointing the finger or personalizing the issue – ‘you brought this on yourself’,” says Dr. Maté. “But that is not at all what I am saying.

“What I am saying is that through no conscious will of your own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with your own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time, you’ve developed a personality style that has turned out to be bad for your health in the long run.

“It’s my belief that diseases like cancer, ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], multiple sclerosis, and so on, that cause so much suffering for people, all come along to teach something – and that if the lesson is learned, with compassion for oneself, then the ‘teacher’ has done its job and can then take a hike.

“That’s not a guarantee, but I’ve seen many examples of people who’ve taken on their illnesses in this way and either survived or far outlived what medical science would have predicted, or at least greatly improved their own quality of life while alive. Research literature confirms this.”

The Anatomy of Anxiety

Chiropractor, bestselling author, and motivational speaker, Dr. Joe Dispenza came off his bike after being hit by a four-wheel-drive vehicle traveling at 55mph. He broke six of his spine’s vertebrae.

He was lucky to be alive. Four different surgeons recommended a complicated operation that involved having steel rods surgically implanted – but that even after such a major operation would still leave him disabled to quite a degree.

Dr. Dispenza did not want this and so started to meditate and visualize his spine repairing itself. “I just started reconstructing my spine in my mind, vertebrae by vertebrae,” he explains.

Three months later he was back on his feet. Now he is a world-renowned expert traveling the world speaking about the mind and body connection.

Dr. Dispenza understands the part anxiety plays in many physical problems. He often speaks about this and in an article entitled The Anatomy of Anxiety he wrote about it in a powerful way.

“A series of repetitive, highly charged, emotionally stressful events that occur in a person’s life within a short time frame could turn on the body’s stress response over and over again. When the stress response is turned on and can’t turn off, the body’s survival mechanisms are activated and can stay that way for long periods of time. When someone lives in survival mode, they are living in a state of emergency, and are continually prepared for peril. The brain and body are always highly aroused.

“Here is where things can go from bad to worse. In preparation for the next perceived threat, a person will think about some future worst-case scenario – based on a specific past memory – and will emotionally embrace it with such focus and concentration, that their body begins to believe that it is living in that future reality in the present moment. Why? Because the body is the unconscious mind. It does not know the difference between an actual experience in life that creates an emotion or when emotion is created by thought alone. As a result, the body can get knocked out of homeostasis just by thinking.”

This is all part of a movement towards recognizing that the human mind, body, and soul are all inextricably linked. Perhaps it can be seen in fact as a return – because our ancestors clearly made this connection.

For instance, the word “melancholia” was formerly used to describe what we call depression today. It derives from Greek melankholia, meaning “black bile”, an excess of which was believed to cause depression. One of the major symptoms of anxiety is stomach aches and digestive issues.

What are some positive things anyone can do to reduce anxiety?

Help for anxiety - Tikvah Lake Recovery

As anxiety is frequently due to how someone was taught to think and what to focus on as a child, it usually takes time and dedication to change thought and belief patterns. But it can be achieved by anyone.

Here are some simple things that anyone can do that will help:

  • Have a massage regularly. 
  • Practice yoga.
  • Meditate.
  • Keep it in the day.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Cut down or quit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Write a gratitude list every day, at least once.
  • Take a walk every day, particularly in parks or the countryside.
  • Watch or read something that cheers you up or makes you laugh.
  • Exercise regularly, aiming for half an hour of moderate activity five times a week.

Virtually everybody who suffers from anxiety will need professional help to look into it and discover why they are excessively anxious. Then they can be shown how to resolve it.

Our experienced team has decades of experience helping people with every type of mental health problem. Here in sunny Florida, our luxury mansion – next to a beautiful tranquil lake and surrounded by peaceful stunning nature – is perfect for anyone’s recovery. Get in touch with us today to chat about how we could help you or someone you care about.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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