What Does Chronic Anxiety Do to the Body?

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Chronic anxiety has a profound effect on the mind and body. Studies have shown that anxiety "is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in the general population." In addition, "anxiety disorders occur more frequently in females than in males with an approximate 2:1 ratio." Anxiety becomes maladaptive when it interferes with a person's ability to function day-to-day. Pathways Recovery Center uses trauma-informed practices and evidence-based therapies to help people in recovery manage anxiety. 

The Impact of Unmanaged Chronic Anxiety

Anxiety impacts the effectiveness of treatment for substance use disorder (SUD). According to the Psychiatric Times, "[S]tudies have shown that anxiety disorders are related to an increased severity of lifetime alcohol use disorders, increased lifetime service utilization among individuals with a substance use disorder, increased severity of alcohol withdrawal, and higher relapse rates following substance abuse treatment." Anxiety worsens the effects of SUD unless both conditions are treated simultaneously. In addition, anxiety-related symptoms affect many aspects of a person's everyday life. 

Unmanaged chronic anxiety increases the risk of relapse for individuals by making it more difficult for them to focus on recovery. Anxiety also impacts long-term sobriety and treatment progress by doing the following:  

  • Reducing a person's ability to manage symptoms
  • Increasing stress and emotional instability
  • Contributing to relationships problems and difficulty making healthy social connections
  • Affecting cognition and memory
  • Making it more difficult to access essential care services

If left untreated, anxiety can develop into specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or other anxiety-related conditions. Early intervention and treatment is the best way to reduce the impact of chronic anxiety. Pathways Recovery Center prioritizes providing a stress-free space where people in recovery develop essential coping skills and decrease overall stress. 

Potential Side Effects of Chronic Anxiety

Anxiety affects cognition, heart health, and other body systems. According to EXCLI Journal, "Some studies have shown that stress has many effects on the human nervous system and can cause structural changes in different parts of the brain." In fact, "Chronic stress can lead to atrophy of the brain mass and decrease its weight." Anxiety increases stress and reduces the body's ability to cope. 

Other potential side effects of anxiety include: 

  • Sleep disturbances and fatigue 
  • Weight loss or gain due to changes in appetite 
  • Difficulty maintaining a regular exercise routine
  • Heart palpitations or chest pain 
  • Digestive issues 

Everyone responds differently to stress and anxiety. Some people may feel completely overwhelmed and lose the ability to function independently, while others only experience mild symptoms. Many factors affect how anxiety manifests in the body, including genetics, age, gender, and general health. 

What Are the Flight, Fight, Fawn, and Freeze Responses?

Anxiety affects the central nervous system and physiological responses to stress, including heart rate, adrenaline, reflexes, and respiration. Some common symptoms of chronic anxiety include sweating, muscle tension, body aches, and difficulty breathing. The central nervous system of people with chronic anxiety is constantly on high alert. Emotionally or physically stressful situations can trigger automatic reactions, often called flight, fight, freeze, or fawn responses. 

Below are brief descriptions of each automatic response: 

  • Flight: avoiding dangerous situations by running away
  • Fight: responding aggressively to any perceived threat
  • Freeze: an inability to move or act against a potential or active threat
  • Fawn: attempting to appease a threat or avoid confrontation  

Most people who go through traumatic events experience one or more of these responses. The effects are different for everyone and can sometimes be challenging to recognize. 

How to Manage Chronic Anxiety

Managing anxiety is easier with the help of professional recovery and mental health programs. Some other ways people cope with chronic stress and anxiety include: 

  • Creating and relying on a solid support system 
  • Practicing regular self-care
  • Actively taking part in recovery 
  • Taking steps to make positive lifestyle changes

Maintaining healthy routines by eating nutritional meals, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep each night also reduces the symptoms of anxiety and SUD. The team at Pathways Recovery Center provides nutritional coaching, psychotherapy, and other treatments for individuals struggling with chronic anxiety.

Treatment Options at Pathways Recovery Center

Anxiety is one of the most commonly reported mental health symptoms worldwide. More people are diagnosed with anxiety disorders than any other mental health issue. Pathways Recovery Center understands the importance of providing personalized trauma-informed care to individuals struggling with substance misuse and chronic anxiety. The program services offered at Pathways Recovery Center are designed to reduce stress and create a welcoming and healing environment. 

Some effective treatment options for chronic anxiety include: 

  • Biofeedback
  • Mindfulness-based interventions 
  • Individual and group therapy
  • Family therapy 
  • Exposure therapy
  • Alternative holistic therapies

Clinicians collaborate closely with clients to ensure they receive the best treatment for anxiety-related symptoms and side effects. Clients control the direction of their own recovery. The care team guides them through developing healthy coping skills to reduce anxiety. Treatment services are based on each client's specific needs and preferences.

Chronic anxiety affects mental and physical health. The brain is physically changed by prolonged exposure to high levels of stress. In addition, behavioral patterns and emotional responses can be significantly altered by chronic anxiety. The effects are often cumulative and, if left untreated, severely impact recovery. Early intervention and treatment is the best way to avoid long-term side effects and complications during recovery. Most people with SUD have some form of co-occurring anxiety. Simultaneously treating all active conditions and underlying issues is the best way to help clients avoid more severe symptoms. Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based methods to treat SUD and co-occurring anxiety. To learn more about our programs, call us today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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