Anxiety is very common and highly treatable

Am I Having a Panic Attack? How Anxiety Affects Your Body

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Whether preparing for an important work presentation, driving on a busy freeway, or trying to keep young children out of trouble, anxiety is completely normal. It helps keep us alert in potentially dangerous situations. However, intense or prolonged anxiety can cause some people to avoid certain activities and can have a negative effect on their day-to-day life, including relationships, work or school, and hobbies.

Stress can also trigger physical responses in the body, causing people to experience sweating, trembling, muscle weakness, and a racing heart, all of which can induce panic. If you’ve found this page because you’re feeling anxious and you just Googled, “Am I having a panic attack,” don’t worry. We’re here to help. People with ongoing anxiety, especially when associated with an anxiety disorder, may experience physical symptoms on a regular basis that make everyday life difficult.

At Dana Behavioral Health, we understand how debilitating anxiety can be. We’re dedicated to providing people of all backgrounds with the treatment and resources you need to improve your mental health. Our diverse group of providershelps a large number people with our comprehensive services, including medication management, psychological testing, family therapy, individual therapy, and more. Whether you’re new to this journey or have been navigating this path for a long time, we’ll walk by your side.

Ready to schedule an appointment? Contact our qualified team today.

What Causes Chronic Anxiety?

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness affecting adults in the United States. There are many reasons a person can develop an anxiety disorder, which can include a mix of environmental factors, including life events and trauma, and genetic factors, such as the person’s genetic makeup, brain chemistry, and unique personality traits and temperance.

There are several treatable conditions under this category:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: People with GAD experience consistent, uncontrollable worry about many different life events, from relationships and work situations to finances and physical health. Even seemingly minor events, such as doctor appointments or errands, can be sources of major anxiety as the person often imagines the worst-case scenario. There are many symptoms associated with GAD, including nausea, stomach pain, problems sleeping, concentration issues, irritability, and fatigue.
  • Panic Disorder: People with this disorder experience frequent panic attacks that may appear to happen without cause. This can lead the individual to avoid certain places, events, or people that they fear may trigger an attack.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: This anxiety disorder affects people in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Common triggers can include war, abuse, near-death situations, and sexual assault, but any event that caused significant trauma to a person can lead to symptoms of PTSD. These include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviors, irritability, mood changes, distorted thoughts and feelings, and heightened arousal and reactivity. 
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: Beyond just feelings of general shyness, social anxiety disorder leads to intense fear of social situations. People with this disorder worry about embarrassment and feel incredibly self-conscious in day-to-day activities that require social interaction. This worry can cause individuals to avoid social situations, negatively affecting relationships and making it difficult for someone to perform well at work, school, hobbies, or other activities.
  • Specific Phobias: A phobia is an excessive fear of a very specific object or situation that is unlikely to cause major harm to the individual. People with a phobia often go to great lengths to avoid contact with what they are afraid of, affecting their quality of life. Phobias can include almost anything, such as an intense fear of tight spaces, spiders, blood, flying, or heights.

What Is a Panic Attack?

Anxiety can also cause acute, intense physical symptoms in some people.  If you are experiencing, or have ever experienced, an episode of severe fear or feelings of doom, it is likely you to be a panic attack.

These attacks are immobilizing and can happen in response to a potential threat or may seem to happen suddenly without an identifiable trigger. People with a panic disorder experience regular panic attacks, which can lead them to avoid certain events that they associate with a past attack.

Panic attacks are very intense but short lived. They typically don’t last for more than ten minutes. People may feel that they are having a heart attack or as if they are dying. Other common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Depersonalization or derealization
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating and hot flashes
  • Chills
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Choking feelings

Can Anxiety Be Harmful?

Anxiety can have a very strong effect on your body. In addition to causing temporary symptoms that are uncomfortable and difficult to cope with, excessive stress or worry can be harmful to your health.

The Effect of Stress Hormones on Your Body

Anxiety can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which, in dangerous situations, allows people to either flee a potentially harmful threat or fight for survival. This state of heightened arousal stimulates the adrenal glands, causing a burst of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The effects of both adrenaline and norepinephrine are immediate and push the body into a hyperactive mode. Together, these two hormones cause an energy boost, heightened heart rate, and elevated blood pressure.

Cortisol is a type of steroid hormone and considered the primary hormone triggered by stress. While adrenaline and norepinephrine only take a couple of seconds to kick in, cortisol takes a little bit longer to have an effect. Cortisol influences many bodily functions, including increasing blood glucose levels, regulating blood pressure, limiting inflammation, altering the immune system response, and suppressing the digestive system.

All of these hormones play a very important role in preparing your body for stressful situations and even helping it heal and repair itself if an injury were to occur. Under regular circumstances, your hormone levels should return to normal once the threat has passed and your body has had time to calm down. However, chronic anxiety can keep these hormone levels elevated for an extended period of time, leading to some harmful, long-term effects.

Long-Term Effects of Chronic Stress and Anxiety

Whether caused by an anxiety disorder or high levels of stress, prolonged, excessive cortisol levels can affect many of your body’s processes. In some situations, you may not even realize that certain problems or symptoms are connected to chronic anxiety.

For instance, stress can cause digestive problems, such as diarrhea or constipation, indigestion, painful cramping, bloating, and inflammation of the intestines and stomach tissues. Similar to depression, increased cortisol levels can also cause people to lose their appetite or overeat, and most people find they crave fatty or sugary foods, which can lead to obesity and other related health issues.

Anxiety also can decrease muscle tissue and bone density, and it can cause aches and pain throughout the body. In fact, high stress levels lower your pain threshold and triggers inflammation, worsening symptoms for other painful conditions such as arthritis, TMJ disorders, chronic migraines, or fibromyalgia. Cortisol’s effect on the immune system can make you more susceptible to injury or illness.

Over time, the continued overproduction of cortisol in the body can lead to Cushing syndrome, which most often affects middle-aged adults between 30 and 50. Weight gain is a primary symptom, along with bruising and stretch marks. It can contribute to a low libido, irregular menstrual periods, abnormal hair growth, blood clots, infection, memory and concentration issues, depression, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. This condition increases the chance of a heart attack, stroke, and adrenal tumors.

What Treatments Can Help Anxiety?

The good news is that anxiety can be treated. If you can relate to the symptoms we’ve discussed, the best place to start is by seeing a behavioral health provider. They will be able to help you understand if you’re struggling with general stress or if your symptoms indicate a disorder. Talk therapy can help people of all backgrounds deal with the stressors of everyday life in a healthier manner.

For more severe situations, different types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can help provide you with the skills necessary to identify and deal with triggers. Medication can also help mitigate the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Depending on your situation and your doctor’s discretion, medication can include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicine, or sedatives.

In addition to these treatments, there are certain lifestyle changes that can help you manage stress and worry, including engaging in physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, reducing caffeine intake, learning meditation and relaxation techniques, journaling, and avoiding alcohol, tobacco, or recreational drugs.

Want to meet with one of our providers? Schedule an appointment today.