Why Anxiety Can Make You Feel Physically Sick; Make You Feel So Bad
We often hear the question, “If anxiety isn’t a medical condition, why can anxiety may you feel so sick?” And many of us at anxietycentre.com have said the same thing when we were struggling with anxiety disorder. But it’s true. The body can become very sick as a result being anxious, such as worrying too much. Here’s why:
Behaving in an apprehensive way causes the body to activate the stress response. The stress response causes dramatic physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body to enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat: to either fight with it or flee from it – which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the flight or flight response.
The stress response is our ally when in real danger. But it can cause problems if we believe we are in danger too often.
The stress response elicits some of the most powerful physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the body can produce. When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover from these changes relatively quickly. But when stress responses occur too frequently and/or dramatically, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can cause the body to remain in a state of hyper emergency readiness. When the body has been in a state of hyper emergency readiness for too long, it can behave erratically and more involuntarily than normal, which can cause all sorts of physiological, psychological, and emotional problems. These problems can also involve the many systems, organs, and glands affected by the stress response.
So yes, being overly anxious and the stress it produces can make the body quite ill and behave in abnormal ways. And if we were to focus on just one aspect of the stress response, the stress hormones the stress response produces, these hormones alone can cause profound changes and problems when they are secreted into the bloodstream too frequently and/or dramatically.
For example, hormones are powerful. Here is a definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica: A hormone is an organic compound (often a steroid or peptide) that is produced in one part of a multicellular organism and travels to another part to exert its action. Hormones regulate physiological activities including growth, reproduction, and homeostasis in humans. Most human hormones originate in specialized tissues and are carried to their targets through the circulation. Among the many mammalian hormones are ACTH, sex hormones, thyroxine, insulin, and epinephrine.
Hormones are responsible for the regulation of many of the body’s functions, and they perform their tasks, for the most part, all by themselves.
Here is a Columbia University Press description of how hormones work:
Hormone: A secretory substance carried from one gland or organ of the body via the bloodstream to more or less specific tissues, where it exerts some influence upon the metabolism of the target tissue. Normally, various hormones are produced and secreted by the endocrine glands, including the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroids, adrenals, ovaries, testes, pancreatic islets, certain portions of the gastrointestinal tract, and the placenta, among the mammalian species.
As lack of any one of them may cause serious disorders, many hormones are now produced synthetically and used in treatment where a deficiency exists. The hormones of the anterior pituitary include thyrotropin ,prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, the gonadotropic hormones, and growth hormone; the posterior pituitary secretes oxytocin, and vasopressin, also known an arginine vasopressin (AVP) or antidiuretic hormone (ADH). [anxietycentre.com changed text due to errors in the original cited text. The information here is correct.]
The thyroids secrete thyroxine and calcitonin, and the parathyroids secrete parathyroid hormone. The adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine while the cortex of the same gland releases aldosterone, corticosterone, cortisol, and cortisone. The ovaries primarily secrete estrogen and progesterone and the testes testosterone. The adrenal cortex, ovaries, and testes in fact produce at least small amounts of all of the steroid hormones. The islets of Langerhans in the pancreas secrete insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin. The kidneys also produce erythropoietin, which produces erythrocytes (red blood cells). The passage of chyme (see digestive system) from the stomach to the duodenum causes the latter to release secretin, which stimulates the flow of pancreatic juice. The duodenum can also be stimulated by the presence of fats in the chyme to secrete cholecystokinin, a hormone that stimulates the gall bladder to contract and release bile. There is evidence that the upper intestine secretes pancreatozymin, which enhances the amount of digestive enzymes in the pancreatic juice. In addition, the pyloric region of the stomach secretes gastrin, a hormone that increases the secretion of hydrochloric acid into the stomach. The placenta has been shown to secrete progesterone and chorionic gonadotropin. There is evidence that it even contains a substance similar to growth hormone.
As you can see, hormones ARE powerful! Simply the stimulation or fluctuation of a hormone can dramatically affect how we feel. As well, hormones can affect the production of other hormones. So it’s reasonable to believe that something as simple as the over production of stress hormones can make the body (and mind) very sick.
And stress hormones are VERY powerful. For example, many people become sick after they have experienced a frightening experience. Some people may shake seemingly uncontrollably, others may vomit, others may seem dazed and confused, and while others may become lightheaded and unstable, or experience all of these together, or more.
Simply being nervous can cause other stress hormone related sensations and symptoms, such as profuse sweating, mental confusion, loss of short-term memory, upset stomach, diarrhea, frequent urination, difficulty speaking, feel like your senses are overloaded, feel weak in the knees, feel like you may pass out, become highly agitated, feel like your balance is unstable, and feel like you have to escape to safety. So even a small amount of stress hormones can cause a dramatic physiological, psychological, and emotional reaction.
Stress hormones also have a profound impact on the body’s nervous system, which includes the brain. The body’s nervous system is connected to almost every part of the body. When the nervous system becomes adversely affected by too much stress, it can make the entire body feel poorly.
So, when you combine the powerful effects of hormones, stress hormones, how stress hormones affect the body’s nervous system and other systems, organs, and glands in the body, it becomes clear that too much stress can make a person feel very ill. The more stressed the body becomes, the worse we can feel.
Furthermore, prolonged periods of stress are often followed by illness or flu because stress hormones suppress the body’s immune system making the body more vulnerable to pathogen invaders.
Yes, the body can become quite ill simply from the over production of stress hormones. And stress hormones are just ONE aspect of the many changes the stress response brings about.
So the next time you find yourself questioning whether stress or anxiety can make you feel really sick, the answer is: “YES, IT CAN. And for good reason!”
All anxiety symptoms are caused by how the stress response affects the body.
For more information about the many changes the stress response brings about, Recovery Support members can read the “Understanding the Physiological Effects of Stress” section in Chapter 3.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated July 2016.