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Possible Complications of Anxiety Disorders

By Friedemann Schaub, M.D., Ph.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

Struggling with chronic anxiety isn’t only dealing with constant worry or feelings of being overwhelmed, it can also exhaust a person mentally and emotionally and cause serious health problems.

Social and Psychological Complications

Without proper treatment, anxiety disorders can lead to low self-esteem, isolation, lack of sleep, cognitive decline and an overall sense of exhaustion and hopelessness. Due to the lack of energy and overwhelming emotional challenges, people with chronic anxiety are frequently unable to keep up with the demands of their everyday lives. Loss of employment, financial problems and ending of relationships are possible consequences that can aggravate the overall sense of hopelessness and entrapment. Not surprisingly anxiety is a major risk factor for developing depression. Further studies have revealed that anxiety combined with depression increases the risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Addictions to drugs, alcohol or nicotine are fairly common among people who have been struggling with anxiety for a long period of time. Similar to depression, addictive behavior can be a risk factor for and a complication of anxiety disorders.

Physical Complications

Anxiety frequently causes digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, cramping, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. Weight fluctuations, loss of interest in sex, sleep problems, headaches, muscle tension and chronic pain are other common anxiety-related physical issues.

Studies have shown that chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to more severe health challenges, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer. These stress-related illnesses are the most common causes of death in most industrialized nations. Chronic anxiety stimulates the continuous release of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream, forcing the body to remain in a fight-or-flight state. In response, blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels increase, which are all major risk factors for developing heart disease and stroke.

Stress and anxiety also decrease the activity of the immune system and lower the number of white bloods cells. Also, researchers have identified that stress plays a major role in the development of allergies and autoimmune diseases. Since these diseases themselves can cause significant stress and anxiety, both mental and physical conditions can exacerbate each other in a viscous cycle.

More Physical Complications

On a cellular level, stress hormones increase oxidative stress in cells and lead to the accumulation of free radicals that cause cell damage. Free radicals can injure all components of a cell, including telomeres, which are specific DNA sequences on the end of chromosomes. Telomeres are designed to protect chromosomes from degradation and prevent them from fusing with each other. Scientists found that the cells of people suffering from chronic stress have significantly shortened telomeres, which means that these people are at higher risk for accelerated aging, cancer and autoimmune and heart diseases.

Anxiety can have severe and lasting effects on a person’s mental and physical health. If you experience chronic feelings of anxiousness, worry, uneasiness or insecurity, take these symptoms seriously and consult your doctor. Although anxiety can make you feel overwhelmed and disempowered, remember that you are not alone. Anxiety is one of the most prevalent health challenges in our society. The good news is that there are many effective treatment options to help you overcome this emotional challenge and take reclaim your power.

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