Aching Muscles, Racing Heart, Diarrhea: How Anxiety Manifests in the Body
The Covid19 pandemic has single-handedly cast an anxious pall over the whole world, in which most people are struggling to maintain any modicum of normalcy amidst fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. As anxiety — about the present and about the future — becomes the new normal, it’s important to understand how it manifests, not just in the mind, but in the rest of the body.
Anxiety, beyond feelings of worry and fear, is essentially the body’s response to stress, which can be a temporary reaction to situations, or a chronic state. This response, most of the time, takes on the form of fight-or-flight, which catapults the body into a panic. It basically kicks all involuntary processes into high gear through the sympathetic nervous system, such as breathing rates and heart rates. This is to equip the body with enough oxygen and blood to be able to cobble together a robust response to a threat. For people with chronic anxiety, these responses manifest on a regular basis. Constantly experiencing fast, shallow breathing and a hammering heart can trigger the mind into more panic and anxiety, keeping a vicious cycle intact.
Both the heart and lungs are affected by the adrenal glands, responsible for the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This hormonal stress response not only induces hyperventilation but also keeps the body on high alert in perpetuity. For example, another symptom of the fight-or-flight response is tensed muscles, which over the course of a long period of time lead to chronic muscle aches, stress headaches, or migraines. These symptoms can become encoded in the body’s response to stress, eventually acting as a signal or harbinger of an anxiety attack or a prolonged anxious episode, which can or can not be due to any particular stressor.
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This stress response is also known to affect the digestive system, mainly causing diarrhea as a symptom. This is due to the neural connection between the brain and the gut, which causes spasms in the intestinal system every time the brain perceives a stressor. These spasms cause stomach pain and nausea, and can cause diarrhea if they extend all the way to the colon.
Anxiety can cause some people to sweat profusely (a function of the hormonal effect on sweat glands), cause shivering or shakiness (a function of being on high alert for extended periods of time), and can render a person more immune to infections such as the common cold (due to a compromised immune system, which is again a function of a perpetual fight-or-flight response).
All of these states impair the ability of people who struggle with anxiety to be able to have normal sleeping patterns, a sustained libido, and energy to function normally throughout the day. Constantly being on high alert and dealing with seemingly random changes in the body can lead to chronic fatigue, on top of the usual anxiety symptoms that manifest in the brain, such as negative feelings of worry and fear. All combined, anxiety can become a constant, overwhelming presence in the lives of people struggling with chronic anxiety disorders, during which seeking help from mental health professionals becomes paramount.