Anxiety is a psycho-physiological state that most people have experienced at one time or another in their lives. However, not everyone to the same degree, nor during the same period of time. In other words, it is not the same to suffer anxiety at a certain time, as to suffer it for days, weeks or months.

The effects of anxiety on health will vary from case to case, with different short-term effects than in the long term . In this article we explain what these effects are right at the moment of experiencing anxiety, and what they are when we suffer from anxiety for a long time.

As we will see, anxiety does not have a single physiological “target”, and so we explain it to you by alluding to each of our organs.

Short-term health effects of anxiety

Before explaining the effects of anxiety on health, let’s briefly recall what anxiety is.

Anxiety implies a series of alterations in the organism, at different levels: behavioural, physiological, emotional… It is an abnormal state of over-excitement, nervousness and tension, in which we find ourselves when our resources are insufficient to cope with the demands or requirements of the environment.

Although there are different types of anxiety disorders, anxiety itself has some fairly common symptoms. Therefore, today we are going to talk about anxiety in general, and about the effects of anxiety on health, since our body “speaks”, and we must listen to it and take care of it in order not to get sick in the long run.

Specifically, we will now know these effects in initial moments of anxiety, when our body begins to experience it:

1. Skin reactions

The health effects of anxiety affect our skin. Anxiety causes us to feel stress, and stress increases our blood flow. This causes some people to turn pale in terms of skin tone (face), and others to turn red. All this is due to the fact that, when experiencing anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system sends more blood than usual to the different muscles .

In addition, this response of our organism, could accelerate the premature aging of the skin. Another effect derived from anxiety, in this sense, is an increase in histamine (inflammatory substance), which can increase the probability of suffering inflammations.

2. Spleen activity

The spleen is an organ that belongs to the lymphatic system; it is considered the “center of activity” of the immune system, and facilitates the destruction of red blood cells and platelets.

When we feel anxious, the spleen releases more red and white blood cells, so that our body gets more oxygen (during an anxious episode). In addition, our blood flow increases by 300-400%.

3. Muscle tension

The health effects of anxiety also affect our muscles. So, when we are anxious, our muscles contract. This is what we call muscle tension. If anxiety is prolonged over time (or even if it does not), we can suffer muscle pain caused by this tension, as well as migraines, neck pain, stiffness in different areas of the body, etc.

4. Throat problems

Another health effect of anxiety is throat problems. When we feel anxiety, our body fluids are dispersed throughout the body. This causes a certain amount of tension and stiffness, which leads to a drying up of the throat , as well as difficulties in swallowing. A hoarse voice may also appear.

Long-term health alterations

We have talked about the effects of anxiety on health when we suffer from anxiety practically in the moment, but… what happens when anxiety is prolonged for a continuous period? That other more serious health problems arise. We will get to know these problems through each of our organs:

1. Stomach

At the stomach level, when we suffer from anxiety over a longer period of time, a propensity to suffer from stomach ulcers appears . The ulcer consists of a deep lesion of the mucous membrane of the stomach (or duodenum), caused by different factors (aggressive and defensive) of the mucous membrane.

On the other hand, at the stomach level, digestive problems derived from anxiety also appear, as well as changes in our metabolism. This is because, when we experience anxiety over a period of time, our body cannot regulate digestion well, resulting in long-term effects on the intestines.

Our body, moreover, cannot absorb the nutrients well , which causes different alterations, such as: diarrhoea, burning, feeling of “swelling”, etc. In extreme cases, sphincter control may even be lost.

2. Heart

Another effect of anxiety on health is an increased propensity to suffer from cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular diseases affect the coronary arteries, which are related to the heart or blood vessels.

This increased risk of cardiovascular disease is due to the fact that our heart rate is continuously increasing, and in addition blood pressure is also elevated and we overproduce cortisol (“the stress hormone”).

Other effects that can appear in the heart (or related) are: arrhythmias, hypertension, strokes, heart attacks… As we can see, these are very serious symptoms.

3. Lungs

What effect does anxiety have on the lungs? What happens is that our expiratory functions (which allow us to breathe normally) become weaker. Thus, breathing difficulties, asthma problems (which are exacerbated in asthmatic people), etc. may appear.

Specifically, people with asthma are more likely to experience a panic attack , according to research (2005) conducted at the University of Sao Paulo.

4. Immune system

Let us remember that the immune system is what protects us from harmful agents; specifically, it prevents us from possible infections or diseases. Thus, another effect of anxiety on health has to do with the immune system.

When we suffer anxiety, it weakens, and therefore we are much more likely to suffer certain diseases, because our body is “down” in this sense. The most common illnesses we are most exposed to when we suffer from anxiety in the long term are colds, infections and inflammations .

5. Brain

Another effect of anxiety on health affects the brain or its functioning; thus, changes appear in it, and we can also suffer sleep problems, for example (insomnia, unrefreshing sleep, etc.).

On the other hand, our nervous system (NS) becomes “saturated”, and cannot function normally . This is mainly because anxiety also causes psychological symptoms (i.e. we also respond psychologically to anxiety).

Other problems associated with mental functioning, caused by anxiety, are: short and long term memory difficulties, attention or concentration problems, etc. On the other hand, we can also suffer other symptoms that affect our daily functioning, such as: fatigue, physical and emotional wear and tear, etc.

Bibliographic references:

  • Friend, I. (2012). Manual of Health Psychology. Madrid: Pirámide.
  • Amigo, I., Fernández, C. and Pérez, M. (2009). Manual of Health Psychology. Madrid: Pirámide.
  • Belloch, A., Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of Psychopathology. Volume II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill. (Themes 1 and 12).
  • Brannon, L. and Feist, J. (2001). Health Psychology. Parainfo: Madrid.