The title of this article might be enough reason in itself to get your heart racing and induce some unwanted stress responses. But anxiety is no joke and it is important for you to understand your anxiety and know the effects of anxiety on your mind, body, and soul.
Throughout the daytime, I felt exhausted and drained but managed quite well (I thought). However, cut to night time and I would wake drenched in sweat with a banging headache and an unbearable pain in my chest.
Sometimes, if I was particularly unlucky, I’d find myself with my head in the toilet bowl before having to lie on the bathroom tiles just to feel the cold floor against my body.
It is definitely not always this extreme.
When it comes to day to day life for me, more often than not, it’s a case of worry, overthinking and feelings of nausea. (More recently the pain in my chest has become a regular intruder.)
Generally speaking, it’s emotional exhaustion that I suffer with the most.
BUT NOT THIS TIME.
When my anxiety reached an all-time high I felt as though it might kill me.
This is NOT an irrational reaction for those of you sitting there who have experienced the exact same thing and feel ridiculous by having this response (just as I often do).
It is far from ridiculous.
The extreme physiological response of anxiety on our bodies can certainly have us feeling as though we are nearing death. It can feel much like having a heart attack and it’s times like this that it’s all too understandable to think, ‘Is this the end?’
So you must not feel silly or foolish for having these thoughts in the midst of an anxiety attack, it is reasonable and understandable.
What I experienced a few months back caught me by surprise. It was not anxiety that I was used to dealing with and I wasn’t quite sure what the hell was going on?!
How could I be in this much pain? Why is breathing so difficult? Why am I hunched over the toilet?
Now, this got me thinking.
I could not comprehend what my life might entail if this extreme physical reaction became a regular, integrated part of my life.
The pain and agony induced by my anxiety felt like the end and how could I possibly live like that?
So, I have been taking the time to research into this; I need to know if my anxiety will be the death of me.
The reason it is so important to look at the hard truths about what anxiety is doing to your body and how it could be killing you is that, if you’re anything like me, you may have been taking small steps to manage your anxiety (and well done to you!) but this will be the kick up the behind to start taking some real action.
If there were ever a reason to conquer your anxiety once and for all, this could certainly be it.
What To Expect From This Article
In this article I will give an overview of:
The effects of anxiety on the Brain, Heart, Body and Mindset.
And within each section I will discuss:
The long term effects of each and how you can help yourself heal.
*Disclaimer – All information stated in this article has been accumulated through thorough research. I am not a doctor or therapist and advice given in this article should not be taken in replacement of a professional. If you are suffering from any symptoms please seek medical advice, any actions you take based on this article are at your own risk.
The Effects of Anxiety on the Brain
To begin with, I highly recommend that following this article you read 5 Surprising Ways That Stress Affects The Brain by VeryWellMind.
Stress, anxiety and depression are all intrinsically linked so when we look at research surrounding one you can often apply the findings to the others.
In the Very Well Mind Article these 5 effects of stress on the brain are discussed:
Chronic Stress Increases Mental Health Illness
Changes The Brain’s Structure
Kills Brain Cells
Shrinks The Brain
Hurts Your Memory.
You might be very surprised by what this article has to say about what your stress/anxiety is doing to your brain.
When we are in the midst of an anxious episode our brains release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These are released after our ‘fight or flight’ responses have been triggered telling our bodies to get ready to run or attack.
In the short term, this is a healthy response and is necessary for helping us stay safe and guarded.
We need this ‘fight or flight’ response even if it causes us a temporary increase in stress and anxiety levels.
Within our brain structure, BrainFacts.org suggests that the easiest way to understand how the brain processes and reacts to anxiety is to split it into two; the frontal lobe (the cognitive brain) and the amygdala (the emotional brain).
We need both to use a balance of emotional and logical thinking to help us make decisions and respond to any given situation.
When the cognitive brain does not manage to override the emotional brain through reason and logic, the amygdala lights up and our emotions run the show.
This is not necessarily a bad thing because as mentioned above, we need our ‘fight or flight’ responses to be triggered in times of danger but the problems arise when we aren’t able to use our cognitive brain to rationalize situations where the ‘fight or flight’ response is not useful but detrimental to our well-being.
What Are The Long Term Effects Of Anxiety On The Brain?
Headaches, migraines, memory loss, and lack of concentration are all possible side effects of experiencing on-going anxiety.
I have been a chronic cluster headache sufferer since I was very young and somewhere around the age of 24, the migraines showed up to play.
It is very clear to me without much digging that my headaches, but more specifically my migraines, appear during times of stress and high anxiety.
The back of my neck and base of my skull become tense and painful; sometimes my jaw tightens and causes extra tension.
These physical responses are brought on by the emotional response to a situation.
When our ‘fight or flight’ responses are triggered there are no long-lasting effects and it can even be beneficial to our health when it is not a regular occurrence.
Our immune system gets a boost and the adrenaline that flows through us gives us a burst of energy before it returns to its normal levels.
But, when it comes to suffering from chronic anxiety/stress what can happen is that we no longer return to our normal levels. We can remain in fight or flight mode with our brains continuing to release the stress hormone.
This leaves us in a constant state of stress.
It is not being used when it is needed and therefore beneficial instead it is constant, leaving us to live day to day life with an unnecessary base level of stress.
So, when we discuss how anxiety could damage you when it comes to the brain, I will say again to read this article from Very Well Mind.
Our brains need taking care of just like any other part of our bodies. The damaging effects can include depression, suicidal thoughts, dementia and brain dystrophy.
These are all very real effects that need to be managed.
That brain fog that you experience following an anxiety attack, the memory loss surrounding an unpleasant situation or the lack of focus when trying to learn a new skill…these could all be signs that your anxiety has begun to take its toll on the squiggy sponge in your head.
So, it’s time to take action.
My realisation came when my concentration was low, exhaustion was high and I was beginning to realise that my memory was failing me.
These effects CAN BE REVERSED so don’t leave it go unnoticed and unchecked.
Help yourself and help your brain by taking action.
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR ANXIOUS BRAIN?
For a start you can read Anxiety Relief: The Ultimate Guide.
This contains 51 tools and techniques for managing your anxiety day to day. It provides short term fixes and long term solutions.
Where the brain is concerned I would focus on techniques such as journaling, challenging negative thoughts, breaking negative thought loops, practicing gratitude, meditating, and breathing work.
The most important thing here is to find what works FOR YOU and TAKE ACTION.
I am guilty of this myself.
I know that meditation should be a daily practice and time should be set aside to make sure it is done every day because ultimately it makes me FEEL GOOD. But do you think I manage this?
We make all the excuses under the sun for why we don’t have the spare 10 minutes to meditate, breathe, journal, call a friend or do some art therapy but yet we will take a shower every day without fail. No questions asked.
These practices are ESSENTIAL. Make them part of your day, I will as well.
The end goal here is to become more resilient toward those situations that induce anxiety so that we aren’t constantly living in the ‘fight or flight’ mode.
The Effects of Anxiety on the Heart (And Soul)
Certainly, I feel the effects that anxiety has on my brain. I live with day to day brain fog and a general lack of clarity. But what concerns me the most about what anxiety is doing to my body is the constant pain in my chest.
During an anxiety attack, you may find that your heart rate increases and you may experience palpitations and/or chest pain.
When this happens your veins dilate to allow better blood flow around your body, needed to enable you to attack or run in times of danger (fight or flight response).
When the blood vessels dilate you might experience a change in temperature. Our body temperature rises and you may sweat as a result of this.
This was a revelation to me!
Constantly I was waking up drenched in sweat with my heart racing. I never knew the correlation other than they were both a result of my body’s reaction to feelings of anxiety but this now makes a lot of sense to me.
An increase in heart rate is normally accompanied by an increase in our breathing and short, sharp breaths replace slow, deep inhalations.
What Are The Long Term Effects Of Anxiety On The Heart?
Much the same as our brains, a short term increase in heart rate and blood pressure is beneficial for us when it comes to utilizing our ‘fight or flight’ response effectively.
We need our bodies to respond this way so we protect ourselves in times of danger.
However, if you’re an anxiety sufferer who is highly sensitive to stimuli and whose ‘fight or flight’ mode is easily triggered, you may find yourself inducing these stress responses in your body unnecessarily and far too often.
If you are constantly feeling on edge, living in a state of fear or panic, then you might find that you never truly find your way out of the stress response and into a state of balance and equilibrium.
Therefore, over time, your heart rate could become irregular as you experience erratic ups and downs.
The effects this can have on your heart are HUGE.
We’re talking about heart disease and high blood pressure both of which can be fatal if left unmanaged.
Increased blood pressure, if chronic, can lead to a weakening of the heart muscles and a thinning of the vein walls which could all result in heart failure.
Believe it or not, your heart is a muscle that has a biological function to keep us alive BUT it is also governed by our emotions.
The cartoon heart that we all use to represent love has more truth to it than you know as it has been uncovered that you can in fact die of a broken heart.
Grief, stress, anger, love, happiness, jealousy, loneliness, angst, and every other emotion have a direct impact on your HEART.
Negative emotions WEAKEN its ability to perform at its best and anxiety/stress are perhaps considered one of the WORST for damaging this beautiful muscle that’s beats inside us.
Having an inconsistent influx of increased heart rate (tachycardia) can in time interfere with normal heart rhythm so, THIS IS SERIOUS.
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR ANXIOUS HEART?
I apologize for the overuse of capital letters in that previous section.
I’m not screaming at you, I promise. But I need to get across how important it is for your heart that you get a hold of your anxiety.
You would not be alone in thinking that anxiety, although understanding that it has physical symptoms, is primarily a mental health problem. It is exactly that, however, the effects it has on our body could be too severe to ignore.
I’m not trying to scare you but in complete honesty, I scared myself.
The severity of my anxious episodes had reached a point where I genuinely thought that this could kill me and, upon further research, it appears that this might not be too far from the truth.
HOWEVER (again, not screaming) it is important to know that just like the brain you can reverse/mitigate any damaging effects that anxiety is having on your heart.
First, I will once again encourage you to read Anxiety Relief: The Ultimate Guide. If you haven’t opened this in a new tab yet, I suggest you do this now (It is going to pop up again in this article!).
Any techniques you might engage in to help your anxious brain will help your anxious heart.
Specifically for the heart, and in a bid to lower that blood pressure and take control of that heart rate, I would suggest looking into the benefits of exercise, meditation, and breathing.
Exercising rids us of a TON of nervous energy! Physical movement, no matter how intensive, can be a sure-fire way to calm your nerves and clear your mind.
I don’t want you to think that I am saying death is going to come knocking on your door. Heart disease and cardiac arrest would be the result of years of chronic anxiety and stress that hasn’t been managed or addressed.
The message I am trying to convey with my rather serious and blunt overtone is that you must not allow yourself to reach this point.
Not only that but whether you are a chronic anxiety sufferer or not you are putting yourself at higher risk of these heart-related illnesses by being this way inclined– you need to take this seriously.
Nothing is permanent and it’s never too late.
So don’t let my concern scare you, allow it to motivate you.
The Effects of Anxiety on the Body
Perhaps one of my most common reactions to anxiety that I experience is nausea and stomach ache.
The gut has now been labelled as the bodies ‘second brain’. Full of good bacteria and able to operate separately from the brain and spinal chord, the enteric nervous system consists of millions of neurons that work together to aid digestion.
When your body triggers its ‘fight or flight’ response one of the ways it optimizes its ability to respond quickly and effectively is to shut down non-essential functions in order to provide extra energy and attention to those functions that will help keep us safe.
One of these non-essential functions includes digestion.
The knock-on effects of this if it were to be a regular and erratic occurrence like that of an anxiety sufferer could be a stomach ache, IBS, diarrhea, and constipation.
This gut microbiome, the collection of bacteria and neurons, is largely to be found in the colon and whereas a healthy gut microbiome can have huge positive effects on your health and well-being, the opposite is true when our gut is in a state of distress.
I know all too well at this current moment in time the impact anxiety is having on my sleep.
Every day I awake feeling groggy and weak, general fatigue seems to be a way of life at the moment. And, in a cruel twist of irony, I lay in bed each night exhausted from the day’s events and cannot manage to drift off to the land of nod.
The link between sleep and anxiety/stress has been proven in a wide variety of studies and, unfortunately for us (much like our gut microbiome), one can very easily affect the other and vice versa.
With a racing mind and body filled with tension and stress induced inflammation, sleep does not come easy. It leaves us with a lack of concentration, agitation and feeling lethargic.
Muscle tension can arise as a result of our body dipping into ‘fight or flight’ mode in the apprehension of an event that makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
In this way muscle tension is not an unusual response in times of anxiety or stress and any group of muscles can be affected.
Personally, I always notice tension in my neck and shoulders which I then attribute to the tension headaches I experience following this.
Much as your brain reacts in a way to protect ourselves from danger by shutting off non-essential bodily functions, our bodies respond by pumping blood to the muscles and tensing so as to be ready to fight or run.
Long Term Effects Of Anxiety On The Body
To begin with, an unhappy gut microbiome can cause a weakening in the gut wall as well as a weakening of the immune system.
Healthy gut bacteria and a happy gut microbiome can directly affect our mood and state of being much like it works the other way around. One affects the other.
Long-term effects as previously mentioned might include IBS, a weakened immune system, or leaky gut syndrome with shorter-term effects being constipation or diarrhea.
However, perhaps more important than both of these is the effects an unhappy gut microbiome can have on our mental health.
Studies have found that chronic inflammation triggers stress hormones in the body which can lead to anxiety and depression.
Over and over again the research I uncover regarding managing anxiety stresses (excuse the pun) the importance of GOOD QUALITY SLEEP.
It is when we sleep that our bodies have time to recuperate from the day just gone and gather it’s energy for the day to come.
We process the information of the day, dissecting it and storing it.
Our bodies are given time to rest and heal as well as our minds.
A lack of sleep can have huge detrimental effects on our health and well-being including:
Inability to learn new things
High blood pressure
Lack of sleep impairs a multitude of cognitive functions and so I want you to understand this clearly; if there is one thing that you take away from this article and give your undivided attention to repairing and mastering, it’s to make sure you get good quality sleep.
Regular sleepless nights can have long-lasting damaging effects and, if severe, it can shorten your life.
The symptoms of your anxious brain, anxious heart, and anxious body can all be triggered by a lack of sleep.
Muscle ache certainly won’t be the death of you, so that’s a bonus.
But it can leave you living an uncomfortable existence. Stress and anxiety can have such extreme effects on the body that aches and pains that you might assume are linked to physical exertion might actually be an emotional response to a given situation.
If your stress responses are activated infrequently and when needed then your body recovers well from this state, however, if your body’s stress responses are triggered regularly then your body can actually remain in this state.
When it comes to muscle tension, this could mean that your body is not able to relax and repair any damaged cells.
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR ANXIOUS BODY?
When it comes to your gut biome and your mood, one very much effects the other.
The best way to help yourself if you’re experiencing these stomach ache type signals that your gut biome needs a boost is to commit to an anti-inflammatory diet.
Typically this involves meals that are high in vegetables, protein, and natural fats and limiting your intake of processed foods as well as foods high in sugar or carbohydrates.
Try this anti-inflammatory meal plan from Medical News Today to get you started!
A healthy gut can have WONDERFUL POSITIVE effects on your health and well-being, not to mention you may drop those few extra pounds you’ve always wanted to budge. (That would be a mood boost in itself!)
In order to give yourself the best chance of quality sleep it’s time to address your morning and night time routines.
Implementing a regimented night time routine can take you leaps and bounds towards that longed for 8 hour sweet spot.
Try these few things to start:
No caffeine after 2pm
Finish eating before 8pm
Turn off all technology at least 1 hour before bed.
Read at least one chapter of your favourite fiction book
Practise deep nasal breathing exercises.
Alongside this you must address the fears and worries that are keeping your brain awake at night. These two articles are great places to begin:
And for relationship worries:
The main cause of restless nights is overthinking brains that can’t switch off and this is because you are not tackling an underlying issue.
You can do this by journaling, talking to someone, repeating positive affirmations, or meditation. It is by no means a quick fix but will have a better chance of significant longer-lasting effects.
Time to RELAX.
Along with all of the above tools and techniques suggested to prevent an anxious episode so that you don’t have to spend time and effort recovering from it, finding ways to relax your body is just as important as relaxing your mind.
For this I would suggest meditation, taking a hot bath, CBD oil, listening to soothing music, and light exercises like yoga to stretch out those tight muscles.
Yoga With Adriene is my all-time favorite yoga Youtube Channel. Whatever you need yoga to help you with, Adrienne has a video just for that. Multiple 30 days challenges are available to kick you off and videos include everything from beginner to advanced.
The Effects of Anxiety on Your Mindset
An anxious brain, anxious heart, and anxious body all result in an anxious mindset and unfortunately, it is one vicious circle.
Anxiety will work its nasty magic to make it so that your negative thought patterns take priority, keeping you on edge and sensitive to possible ‘fight or flight’ situations. With this comes a habit loop that needs to be broken.
The anxiety that would have your body constantly bouncing in and out of stress will eventually have you remaining in a state of stress permanently (in order to protect itself) and how will this make you feel? ANXIOUS.
When filled with anxiety and stress we have this feeling of impending doom. Intense fear, paranoia, and negativity become a way of thinking and our perceptions become skewed in favor of the bad rather than the good.
A positive mindset and outlook on life are difficult to achieve when your mind and body are constantly expecting to get ready to fight or flee.
We are taking away its ability to enjoy life.
Long Term Effects Of Anxiety On Your Mindset
To be blunt – the consistent experience of ongoing anxiety can lead to what would be known as chronic anxiety. This in turn could quite easily take a turn into depression and if this is left unmanaged and unchecked could tragically lead to suicide.
Anxiety, stress, loneliness and depression are all intrinsically linked.
You don’t often find the presence of one without another.
So, even if you’re like me and currently find yourself quite firmly on the anxiety side of the fence, we are far more likely to be the exact people who may cross that fence one day into the back yard of depression.
I feel as though, at this moment in time, I handle my anxiety well. I am fearful of the physical symptoms I experience during an anxious episode but I do not consider myself depressed or lonely.
However, it would be a disservice to myself if I did not take this seriously and acknowledge that I am at greater risk of these potentially fatal mental illnesses by the nature of my already suffering from anxiety.
Likewise, I encourage you to raise your self-awareness and really begin to practice some true self-care where your anxiety is concerned.
The effects anxiety has on our brain, heart, and body are serious. Long-term effects can be damaging and even fatal so it is important to begin taking care of each part of ourselves NOW.
However, it is our mindset that is perhaps the most dangerous here and should be the top priority.
Do you notice how you feel following an anxious episode?
Low, agitated, irritable, lack of concentration and more.
If we were lucky enough to never experience the suicidal thoughts that can be brought on by depression, this would still not be a way to live.
How can you…
Have belief in yourself to be a good parent if you feel this way?
Take the leap to apply for that job promotion if you feel this way?
Bring yourself to learn a new skill if you feel this way?
Let yourself love and be loved if you feel this way?
Perhaps anxiety won’t kill you but it can make sure that you’re in for a pretty miserable and disappointing life.
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR ANXIOUS MINDSET
One last time, please read Anxiety Relief: The Ultimate Guide followed by How To Get Back On Track (And End 2020 On a High Note).
You have negative thought loops that need to be broken.
To take yourself out of constantly living in your body’s stress response you need to get comfortable with situations that scare you.
You need to accept that you cannot change things that are out of your control.
You need to refocus your values and beliefs and live an authentic life on your terms. It’s time to take control and take action.
Charles Duhigg wrote an incredible book called The Power Of Habit which explains so clearly how the habitual habit loop works and how to break it. After reading this book I couldn’t quite believe how little control I have over automatic thought patterns but how much control I had over changing them.
It was a true light bulb moment.
Once you can recognize the loop you CAN break it. And these loops need to be broken so that you can ease your brain, heart, and body of anxiety which in turn (yep, you guessed it) will help your anxious mindset.
One affects the other.
Help one, help them all.
If you can only begin with one because you think it would be easier to tackle then do that. If changing your diet to help your gut will be the best place to start then jump at it.
Would meditating and exercising ease your anxious heart? Will it be the easiest way in? Then go for it!
Ideally, it’s a juggling act and luckily, many of the techniques that you can use to help one will directly help another.
What I would ENCOURAGE is that you begin with the mindset IF YOU CAN.
As always, the power of the mind is still greatly underestimated. You can change your physical state by adjusting your mindset. It is perhaps the hardest to achieve but it has the greatest results.
So, by all means, work on your brain, heart, and body as this WILL be hugely beneficial and allow you to adjust your state from a physiological standpoint which in turn will help your mindset, however; the sooner you can get started on your mindset, the better off you will be.
You Can Work With What You Know
Hopefully, this article will do for you exactly what this information has done for me; give insight and greater understanding as to what exactly is happening to us when we experience anxiety in the long and short term.
Use this knowledge to motivate you to start taking some serious action.
Don’t let it scare you. It is never too late to make positive changes and mitigate those more fatal risks that come with long term, chronic anxiety.