Restoring Equilibrium: Anxiety Disorder Treatment Can Prevent Physical Damage

When you have an anxiety disorder, your physical ailments may reflect your emotional state. | Image Source: Unsplash user Ales Krivec

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, chances are you’re all too familiar with the immediate somatic effects of the illness. Your heart races, your head feels like a helium balloon, your hands sweat, and nausea rises as you struggle to regain a sense of calm. However, the physical effects of anxiety may not be isolated to those you experience during an anxious episode; anxiety disorders can have serious and long-lasting implications for your overall health. As researchers increasingly establish links between mental health disorders and physical ailments, it is becoming clear that comprehensive anxiety disorder treatment is vital to not only provide relief from emotional suffering, but to protect your physical well-being.

The Mind-Body Connection

The mind-body connection is well known to produce physical manifestations of emotional distress. Anxiety, in particular, is expressed through both psychological and bodily symptoms, and has been linked to a range of physical health problems that can seriously affect your quality of life. When you experience anxiety, changes in neurotransmitter activity flood your brain with stress hormones, affect breathing and muscle tension, and re-route blood to the brain, moving it away from abdominal organs as your primitive self-preservation apparatus kicks in and puts you on high alert. Of particular concern is the elevation of cortisol levels:

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.[1. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037]

The body’s self-regulating mechanisms typically return your body to a state of equilibrium after feelings of fear have passed. However, the continuous exposure to stress hormones, including cortisol, caused by chronic anxiety can produce adverse health effects affecting your entire body, including your digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems.

Irritable Bowel Disease

A recent study by researchers at the University of Toronto has found a troubling link between inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease and colitis, and anxiety disorders.[2. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2015/08/04/crohns-disease-colitis-tied-to-anxiety-in-study] Working with a sample of 269 adults diagnosed with Crohn’s or colitis, the researchers discovered that people with IBD were twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder as those without the disease. What’s more, the severity of pain was directly correlated to their likelihood of having anxiety, and women were four times more likely than men to report anxious symptoms. While the study did not seek to establish a causal link been anxiety and IBD, it is well known that anxiety can produce digestive disturbances, and chronic disruption of normal bodily processes may create ongoing physical symptoms.

Heart Disease

Many people experiencing a panic attack mistake the symptoms for a heart attack as their heart races, chest tightens, and they struggle to breathe. While panic attacks and heart attacks are distinct events, anxiety disorders have been implicated in the development and exacerbation of heart disease. Annelieke M. Roest, MSc, of Tilburg University, conducted a meta-analysis of 20 studies with a combined total of 250,000 research subjects, controlling for heart disease risk factors such as obesity, exercise, and smoking.[3. http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/news/20100623/anxiety-may-increase-risk-of-heart-disease?page=2] She found that suffering from anxiety increased the risk of heart disease by 26% and increased the risk of death from a coronary event by 48%. The elevated risk of heart disease is thought to be the direct result of prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels resulting from chronic stress. Acute anxious episodes may pose an additional risk factor according to Dr. Una McCann, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: “[P]anic attacks or surges in anxiety … would likely be associated with intermittent surges in blood pressure, which would be detrimental to individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular disease and might also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.”[4. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/anxiety-bad-heart/story?id=11092179] By learning how to manage chronic and acute anxiety symptoms, you can minimize the risk of cardiovascular events.

Infertility

If you are struggling with infertility, one of the most common things you hear is “relax and it will happen.” While often irritating, it may also be true. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford found that women with elevated levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme secreted into the salivary glands when you experience high levels of stress, were 12% less likely to conceive than women with low alpha-amylase concentrations each cycle.[5. http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2010/nichd-11.htm] While this may be distressing news to women with anxiety disorders who are trying to get pregnant, research also shows that anxiety treatment can restore fertility. Dr. Sarah Berga, a physician specializing in fertility issues, has observed that women who do not ovulate have elevated cortisol levels, indicating high levels of stress.[6. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/health/04conv.html] Her research also found that 7 of 8 anovulatory women with anxiety began ovulating again after undergoing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–compared to only 2 of 8 women who did not receive treatment. In an interview with the New York Times, she says, “Ideally, it would be good for doctors and patients to understand the link between stress and fertility so that they would know when to offer some sort of intervention. For instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a relatively simple program that sometimes removes the need for expensive and risky infertility drugs and procedures.”

Better Health for Mind and Body

By taking control of your anxiety and learning how to manage stress, you may be able to prevent or reverse the physical effects of your mental health disorder. Anxiety disorder treatment can be an instrumental part of ensuring that you stay healthy in both mind and body, and may help you alleviate existing physical ailments as well as fortifying you against future damage. Through intensive psychotherapy and somatic therapies you can develop the skills you need to regulate your responses to stressors and restore biochemical equilibrium to prevent the damaging physiological effects of anxiety. The restoration of healthy cortisol levels, in particular, may optimize your emotional and physical well-being. The sooner you seek help, the faster you can begin to heal and experience the benefits of renewed stability.

 

Bridges to Recovery offers holistic treatment for people suffering from anxiety disorders in a relaxing, private environment. Contact us to learn more about how our program can help you or your loved one today.