Long-Term Effects of Anxiety on the Body

May 10, 2019

You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.

Dan Millman

The severity of conditions such as GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) can vary significantly, with the worst cases causing near-debilitating worry almost every day. Yet, for individuals who suffer from anxiety, the effects extend far beyond the psychological realm alone. The problem with anxiety is that it produces many physical symptoms, including long-term effects, as well.

In a healthy response to stress, the brain mediates the perceived stressor, signaling the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline. The hypothalamus, a region of the brain responsible for coordinating with the nervous system, triggers a slower maintenance response by working with the pituitary gland. The adrenal system is then triggered to release cortisol. The nerves react to the trigger eliciting responses such as focused attention and heightened awareness.

Long-Term Health Risks of Anxiety

These actions are normal and even healthy on a short-term basis, but when the stress response fails to shut off, that’s when problems begin to arise. These actions, which are controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system, also contribute to homeostasis to optimize energy use. Because these systems influence other bodily functions, prolonged responses can have damaging impacts on health. [1] In addition to the short-term symptoms described in a previous section, here are some ways anxiety affects long-term health.

Increased Disease Risk

Businessman holding glasses as he rubs his head while staring at his computer experiencing the effects of anxiety

Anxiety has been linked to inflammation, an underlying driver of many chronic diseases. Inflammation is directly implicated in cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death worldwide. Increased inflammation has also been correlated with cancer, dementia, depression, and rheumatologic disease. Evidence also suggests that anxiety sufferers are more likely to develop certain chronic health conditions. This could be a result of the suspected interaction between the immune system and the central nervous system. [2]

Specifically, anxiety disorders have been linked to the development of heart disease, as well as coronary events in individuals already suffering from heart disease. One study shows people with the highest levels of anxiety are 59% more likely to have a heart attack, while others concluded that in patients with established heart disease, those suffering from anxiety were twice as likely to experience a heart attack compared to those without a history of anxiety. [3]

Sleep Deprivation

Mature woman lying in bed with her husband having trouble falling asleep experiencing the effects of anxiety

As mentioned above, sleep issues are commonly seen in anxiety disorders. While sleep deprivation can cause short-term issues such as excessive daytime sleepiness, it is also associated with many worrisome long-term health problems including an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, depression, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. [4] Anxiety disorders are therefore dangerous in the fact that their physical symptoms tend to snowball with many of the related issues they cause also contributing to even more serious consequences.

Weight Gain

Woman standing on scale to evaluate her weight gain while experiencing the effects of anxiety

Constant worry can be a significant contributor to weight gain. Mood disorders, in general, can impact appetite as evidenced by the 25% comorbidity rate between these conditions and obesity. Moreover, patients with higher circulating cortisol levels demonstrate insulin resistance and increased abdominal fat.

The interplay between weight and anxiety extends further. Digestion changes, including slowed digestion, can occur in anxious individuals which can contribute to weight gain over time. Additionally, many people who suffer from anxiety experience energy depletion, which can cause an individual to become less physically active. Even certain medications used to treat anxiety can contribute to fatigue, thereby inhibiting a person’s drive to exercise. Finally, many people with mood disorders turn to “comfort food,” which is often calorie-dense but low in nutrients, highly processed, and palatable. This continued pattern of eating for pleasure, instead of consuming what the body truly needs, can set patients up not only for weight gain but also ill-health in general.

Are You Risking Your Long-Term Health – In Conclusion

Anxiety, similar to chronic stress, can lead to long-term health issues including increased disease risk, sleep deprivation, and weight gain. Anxiety has been linked to chronic inflammation, which is the underlying factor for cardiovascular disease, increased risk of cardiac episodes (stroke or heart attack), cancer, dementia, depression, and rheumatologic disease.

Studies have also associated anxiety with sleep deprivation due to constant worry, a symptom of anxiety, which is responsible for excessive daytime sleepiness in the short term and increased disease risk in the long term. Constant worry can also be a significant contributor to weight gain due to increased appetite, insulin resistance due to increased cortisol levels, energy depletion, and fatigue.

Cenegenics physicians address your anxiety using an all-encompassing approach to address not only the symptoms of anxiety – lack of energy, weight gain, sleep issues, but also the cause. Cenegenics programs focus on optimizing your health through customized nutrition and exercise plans to reduce your anxiety, with the flexibility to change based on your life events!

Next Steps to Understanding Your Anxiety

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Additional Resources

Causes and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Causes of High Blood Pressure: How to Prevent Hypertension

Chronic Inflammation and Its Serious Health Implications

Can You Recognize the Early Signs of Heart Disease?

Understanding Mental Acuity: Improving Focus, Memory, and Concentration with Cenegenics

Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes: Know the Warning Signs

Recognizing Your Risk Factors of Type 2 Diabetes

Symptoms of Stress: Effects on Your Body and Mind

Understanding How to Deal with Stressors

How to Relieve Stress with Cenegenics


[1] Stöppler, Melissa Conrad, MD. “Stress.” MedicineNet.com Retrieved from URL: https://www.medicinenet.com/stress/article.htm#stress_facts

[2] S. Salim et al. “Inflammation in anxiety.” Advances in Protein Chemistry and Structural Biography. 2012. Retrieved from URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22814704

[3] “Anxiety and physical illness.” Harvard Health Publishing. 09 May 2018. Retrieved from URL: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/anxiety_and_physical_illness

[4] Colten, HR and Altevogt, BM. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. National Academies Press, 2006.

Contributor: Rudy Inaba Vice President of Health Performance

Rudy Inaba is Cenegenics’ Vice President of Health Performance. He is a recognized fitness and sports nutrition consultant with nearly 15 years of experience in clinical exercise physiology and lifestyle management. After pursuing his Master of Science in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Rudy joined Cenegenics where he leads 19 clinical locations nationwide in their advancements in kinesiology, nutritional biochemistry, and their analyses of industry research & market trending.

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