When you are overwhelmed with worry, fear, or stress, it’s common to feel exhausted or run down. Persistent fatigue can, in turn, be both a symptom of and a risk factor for certain physical illnesses. Does this mean that there is a connection between anxiety and the immune system?
What Is Anxiety?
Before we dive into the relationship between anxiety and the immune system, let’s take a moment to review what, exactly, anxiety is.
Anxiety is a general term that can refer to several distinct mental health disorders. The anxiety section of fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes the following disorders:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Specific phobia
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Selective mutism
- Separation anxiety disorder
All anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear or worry. The separate types of anxiety disorders are differentiated primarily by what types of events, experiences, or circumstances can prompt the onset of symptoms.
Can Anxiety Weaken the Immune System?
Research indicates that anxiety can have a negative effect on the immune system. But experts have not yet identified a common, universal connection between anxiety and the immune system.
For example, the authors of a 2015 article in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology reported that “psychological stress has been linked empirically with dysregulation of facets of the human immune system.” However, the authors of this article noted, the ways that excessive stress can impact the immune system appear to vary from person to person.
Several sources, including the Mayo Clinic, have identified cortisol as a contributor to stress-related problems in the immune system. When a person encounters what they believe to be a threat, their body’s reaction includes the production of several hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. (It is important to understand that the threat does not have to be real for this response to occur – just that the person believes that they are in danger, which is what happens when a person has an anxiety disorder.)
In general, the body’s reaction to perceived threats is to shut down non-essential functions so that maximum energy can be directed toward the “fight or flight” response. Among cortisol’s role in this process is altering how the immune system operates.
Ideally, this type of reaction is relatively rare. However, people who have anxiety disorders may constantly feel that they are in peril, which means their body will engage in this response over and over again. The cumulative impact of this perpetual emotional distress can include an erosion of the body’s ability to protect itself from diseases and illnesses.
How Else Does Anxiety Impact the Body?
The physical effects of anxiety aren’t limited to the immune system. Depending on which type of anxiety disorder a person has developed, they may also have the following types of physical symptoms:
- Excessive perspiration
- Elevated heart rate
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Sensation of being choked or smothered
- Chest pain
If a person has panic disorder, symptoms such as the ones listed above can occur at any time, with little to no warning. These symptoms can be severe enough to make a person believe that they may be about to die.
Other types of anxiety disorders can also cause symptoms like the ones listed above. For example:
- Someone who has specific phobia may develop many distressing physical symptoms when they are exposed to a certain animal, object, or circumstance.
- People who have social phobia may develop these symptoms when they are placed into a situation where they fear that they may be judged negatively by others.
- Individuals who have agoraphobia may suffer from these types of physical responses when they are among a crowd of people, in wide open spaces, or in certain other environments.
Tips for Managing Stress & Anxiety
If you have developed an anxiety disorder, you may need professional care at the inpatient and/or outpatient level. Treatment for anxiety disorders often includes a combination of medication and therapy. These services can help you manage your symptoms, with the goal of empowering you to overcome the limitations that untreated anxiety has placed on your life.
If you have been having trouble managing stress, but your needs aren’t severe enough to warrant enrolling in a treatment program, the following tips may be beneficial:
- Practice mindfulness and meditation.
- Keep a gratitude journal to record what you appreciate about your life.
- Follow a nutritious diet plan.
- Incorporate physical activity into your daily life. This can include working out, walking, riding a bike, gardening, and myriad other enjoyable activities.
- Get an appropriate amount of sleep every evening.
- Limit your screen time – especially when it comes to social media.
- Keep in touch with friends and family.
- Never be afraid to ask for help when you think you need it.
Begin Treatment for Anxiety in Nashville, TN
If you have been struggling with the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, please know that help is available and treatment works. Arbor Wellness is a trusted provider of customized services and compassionate support for adults whose lives have been disrupted by anxiety and other mental health concerns.
Our treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a safe and welcoming space where you can receive personalized care from team of skilled and experienced professionals. Visit our admissions page or contact us directly to learn more or to schedule a free assessment.