How anxiety affects the body

At various points in our recovery, whether from trauma, mental illness, or addiction, we often find it difficult to get a clear sense of how we’re feeling/doing. I encourage folks to check in with their bodies, as to varying degrees our emotions and stress manifest physically. Our facial expressions and body language communicate to others what we are often unaware of ourselves.

Anxiety negatively impacts four major bodily systems:

  1. The Muscular/Skeletal system
  2. The Cardiac system
  3. The Gastro-Intestinal (G.I.) system
  4. The Immune system

Muscle tension and repetitive movements (especially with our hands) are clear indicators of stress and anxiety. Indeed, often what we refer to as stress is actually an accumulation of negative emotion that we’ve bottled up. This creates pressure that is easily observed. I often talk with folks who tell me they’re “fine” while it appears their shoulders are trying to eat their ear lobes.

The cardiac system typically cannot be observed at all, but we know there is a clear relationship between a person’s pulse rate, blood pressure, and anxiety. I ask folks to notice their heart beat and their breathing as these are very clear indicators of distress and warning signs that we need to slow down.

For most of us, the greatest damage our bodies experience because of anxiety is evident in our digestive system. Acid reflux, ulcers, gall bladder problems, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome are the most common. There’s an old expression that our stomachs are “tied up in knots” when we’re especially nervous. The tension that is created by anticipation and worry creates problems for our digestive system and over time, leads to increasingly serious medical conditions.

The more we experience distress in our gastrointestinal tract (G.I.), the more we may find ourselves hesitant to travel, enjoy meals with others, and get together with friends. G.I. disturbances are often both painful and embarrassing. I consistently have found, however, that the more a person copes with negative emotions and resolves inner conflicts, there is usually a notable improvement in their G.I. functioning.

The impact of anxiety on our immune system is usually surprising to people. I ask folks to contrast their awareness of their own needs and feelings to their awareness of the needs and feelings of others. Chronic anxiety leaves us preoccupied and nervous primarily because we are worried about things that may or may not ever occur. Quite often, we rely on surface level concerns to avoid much more painful problems. Other times we are simply seeking distractions from ourselves.

Anxiety can be overcome, as can health conditions that are caused or exacerbated by it. Check in with your body when you’re not sure how you’re feeling. Then check in with your body for what it most needs. We are people who excel in caring for others, but not ourselves.