Worried Sick: When Worry Impacts Your Physical Health

Effects of Worrying on Physical and Mental Health

If you’ve ever wondered, can worrying make you sick the answer is a resounding yes. Unfortunately, the term worried sick is a pretty accurate description of what’s happening. Chronic and constant worry can cause issues with your body, both physically and mentally.

Physical health

Excessive worry can affect all the systems in the body, including:

  • Immune
  • Respirators
  • Cardiovascular
  • Gastrointestinal
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Endocrine
  • Nervous system
  • Reproductive system

Immune system

Your immune system is responsible for keeping you healthy. A functioning immune system protects the body from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins. When the immune system is suppressed, the body is more susceptible to illness.

Unfortunately, too much constant stress can have a significant impact on the immune system. Studies have found that chronic stress can suppress both humoral and cellular immunity. This means that uncontrolled anxiety can make your body unable to fight off the usual pathogens and viruses.

Respiratory system

The respiratory system includes the nose, mouth, lungs, and airways. A working respiratory system allows you to breathe and move air into your lungs.

Unfortunately, in addition to reduced immunity, chronic worry is also linked to increased risk of respiratory issues, including asthma and upper respiratory infections. Furthermore, scientific studies have linked chronic stress and anger to deteriorating lung function.

Cardiovascular system

Your cardiovascular system includes your heart, blood, and blood vessels. Its primary job is to move oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body.

However, chronic stress and worry can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system, causing hypertension and cardiovascular disease. For example, a meta-analysis of 20 studies (including more than 250,000 subjects) found that anxiety led to a 26% increased risk of coronary artery disease.

Gastrointestinal system

Your gastrointestinal (GI) system has a vital function — digesting the foods you eat. Not only that, but then it absorbs the necessary nutrients the body needs and excretes the rest through the intestines.

When stress occurs, the body temporarily halts the digestive system so energy can go towards the body’s fight or flight response. During a period of chronic stress, the stomach does not have time to recover, which can cause numerous GI issues like heartburn, indigestion, or constipation.

While stress isn’t likely the cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high levels of chronic worry often predict the clinical outcome in people who develop IBS. This means that people with more consistent and severe anxiety can have the worst clinical symptoms of IBS.

Musculoskeletal system

The musculoskeletal system contains all the moving parts of your body, including bones, muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue. Its primary function is to allow movement and protect your internal organs.

Chronic stress and worry cause your muscles to tense up for long periods and can lead to health problems like tension headaches and migraines.

Endocrine system

The endocrine system is responsible for regulating your body’s hormones for energy level, growth, and development. When the system is under extreme stress, though, there are changes in the hormone levels in your body.

Consistent stress and anxiety can result in disorders of the endocrine system like obesity, gonadal dysfunction, or Graves’ disease.

Nervous system

The nervous system is a complex communication system that transmits signals all over the body. When the body suffers from prolonged stress, the constant activation of the nervous system often harms other body systems.

There’s a link between cognitive performance and chronic stress. When the nervous system is under persistent stress or anxiety, it can cause a decrease in cognitive performance.

Mental health

Your mental health is determined by genetic, psychological, environmental, and developmental factors. Chronic worry and stress can play a massive role in your overall mental health and well-being.

generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder, commonly known as GAD, is the prevalent worry or fear about everyday life. Constant concern is linked to GAD. Chronic worry usually starts with fretting over one or two important things (for example, money and work), but then your thought patterns snowball and become all-encompassing. As a result, people with GAD are often in a constant state of worry.

Depression

Depression is a mental health condition that negatively affects how you feel about yourself and your environment.

Some research suggests that repeated stress can make the brain susceptible to depression. Consistent worry leads to neurodegenerative changes in the brain, leaving it vulnerable to depression symptoms including, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts.

Panic disorder

People with panic disorder have frequent and unexpected panic attacks. Worrying yourself sick can actually cause panic disorder to develop in some people. While panic disorder may not occur right after an acutely stressful event, it is not uncommon for symptoms to occur weeks after the experience.

Sometimes panic disorder leads to other conditions, like agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving the house. For example, when someone has an unexpected panic attack in a public space, they might start to fear having another one and therefore choose to stay at home in hopes of preventing their next attack.

Social anxiety

Social anxiety is prevalent in people who fear social settings or groups. Chronic worry might lead to social anxiety when people don’t feel comfortable around others.

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