Can Anxiety Make You Physically Sick? Experts Say Yes, But There Are Ways To Manage It
Think back to elementary school: Were you taught about how one bone connects to another? What about how your mental wellness connects to your physical health? Generally speaking, when a doctor identifies the root cause of an illness, you’ll hear words like "virus," "bug," or "germs," but your anxiety can make you physically sick, too, in ways you really wouldn’t expect. You might even convince yourself you’ve caught something going around, or you might think whatever’s making you feel sluggish came on out of nowhere. But if you’re the type of person who’s easily stressed out or whose nerves quickly build up inside of them, it’s likely that what you’re feeling has nothing to do with any of those things, and everything to do with your anxiety.
I know myself, and I’ve always been the kind of person whose anxiety got the better of them. If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you I was a nervous kid who grew up to be a type-A teenager, and eventually, an even more anxious adult. As a result of my dire need to be in control at all times, and my tendency to stress about situations that haven't even happened yet, my body eventually responded by developing irritable bowel syndrome which, up until now, I wrote off as a nervous reaction. So the fact that anxiety can make you physically sick is a very real issue to contend with, and one that needs to be addressed, because while you can nurse a headache with pain medication and ease stomach cramps with a heating pad, what’s really in need of a remedy is your anxiety.
So what role does your mental health actually play in terms of your physical well-being?
Before you can even begin to understand how anxiety affects the rest of your body, it's important to have a general understanding of what anxiety even is. Scientifically speaking, Laura Rubin, Ph.D, a licensed clinical psychologist at Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center in New Hampshire, tells Elite Daily that anxiety is a neurobiological response (meaning a connection between your brain and your nervous system) that happens when your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. In other words, when a situation feels weird or off-putting to you, or a person is coming off really shady or untrustworthy, your brain picks up these cues, causing your nervous system to react.
And, according to Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, when you feel overly anxious or stressed, it’s natural for your body to respond. In fact, she tells Elite Daily, it’s a chemical reaction that sparks these physical ailments, because chronic stress and anxiety can cause your body “to release adrenaline,” she explains, which suggests that, on top of feeling mental stress and anxiety, your physical well-being is going to react, too.
As far as the kind of physical response your body has to anxiety, that really depends on you and your individual nervous system. For me, it’s stomach cramps and headaches, but for you, it might be shortness of breath or muscle tension. According to Rubin, symptoms like “sweating, trembling, dizziness, or rapid heartbeat” are all common, and chronic anxiety can even lead to medical conditions like “heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and [stomach] conditions," she tells Elite Daily. What’s more, she adds, kids and young adults who experience anxiety might not be able to articulate what they’re feeling, so their body does the talking for them in the form of headaches and stomach aches. So basically, the first few years of my own experience with IBS was likely due to the fact that I couldn't put my finger on what, exactly, was making me feel so anxious.
Anxiety can make you physically sick, but there are ways to make sure it doesn't get to that point.
When you’re in the heat of an anxiety attack, or hunched over in pain because whatever’s going on upstairs is wreaking total havoc over your insides, it can often feel like there’s nothing you can do to feel better. Sometimes you don’t even realize your anxiety is that big of a deal until after the thing you're stressing about actually happens, and all of a sudden you’re nauseous or dizzy from an emotional build-up. "It's like when you get sick on your vacation because you can finally let go," Michael Alcee, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Tarrytown, New York, tells Elite Daily. "People sometimes try to over-manage or compartmentalize their anxiety [so much] that after the stressful event is over, they finally allow themselves to crash."
Traci Stein, PhD, MPH, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University, adds that people who are especially anxious are generally self-critical, to the point where anything — past mistakes, perceived failures, what other people are thinking — often pile up and come crashing down. In order to soften the blow, she says, your first order of business has to be to practice self-compassion. "Self-compassion basically translates to being in the present moment in a non-judgmental way (otherwise known as mindfulness); practicing self-kindness, and recognizing that you are human, just like everyone else," Stein tells Elite Daily. "No one is perfect, and you don’t need to be either."
In addition to granting yourself the love and compassion you deserve (and need), Forshee tells Elite Daily it can be super helpful for you to pay close attention to what, specifically, is triggering your anxiety. That way, when you're caught up in a stressful situation, you'll know it's time to put your coping mechanisms to good use. Those strategies could include things like breathing exercises, or taking a few minutes to do some guided meditation (apps like Stop, Breathe & Think and Headspace all have quick, guided practices) to check in with yourself and regroup.
If the physical symptoms continue or worsen, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor about what's going on both mentally and physically as well, in order to get the right treatment.