Can Anxiety Disorders Really Cause Disease?

When people casually tell you not to worry so much, they’re unknowingly giving you a very smart health tip. It seems like common sense, but hard evidence of a link between anxiety disorders and physical health problems has only recently emerged.

In 2006, a research team at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, led by Dr. Jitender Sareen, explored the connection between anxiety disorders and physical conditions. The results were published in the October 23, 2006 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Anxiety disorders in various participants were associated with several physical conditions including respiratory disease, arthritis, allergic conditions, migraine headaches and thyroid disease.

Among the 1,913 men and 2,268 women in the study, 429 had an anxiety disorder within the past month and 2,610 had a physical condition within the past month.

It was found that the majority of the individuals developed the physical ailments after the anxiety disorder was diagnosed. People who had both types of disorders also were more likely to have one or more days of disability than those with physical illnesses alone.

As in previous research, a correlation existed between presence of an anxiety disorder and thyroid disease (1), gastrointestinal diseases (2), respiratory diseases (3), allergies (4), migraine headaches (5), and arthritis (6). Studies (7-9) have also shown that people with phobic anxiety may be more likely to experience sudden cardiac death.

Anxiety Disorder Types

The category of anxiety disorders includes agoraphobia, panic disorder, social phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the study, people who suffered from anxiety disorders seemed to develop health problems the longer the disorder persists. Indeed, it appears that untreated anxiety disorders are the primary reason physical problems start to appear.

Minor physical symptoms like dizzy spells, nausea, shortness of breath and chest pains may be ignored by the person, or worse yet, they may seek comfort in some unhealthy form of anxiety coping like over drinking or smoking.

How does it Work?

“The mechanisms of association between anxiety disorders and physical conditions remain unknown, although several possibilities should be considered,” Sareen notes.

For example, the presence of an illness may cause worry and anxiety that eventually becomes serious enough to qualify as an anxiety disorder, the presence of an anxiety disorders could trigger biological processes that contribute to illness or a third condition, such as a substance abuse disorder, could be linked to both.

Sareen explains:

“These findings extend previous work in clinical and community samples that noted an association between anxiety disorders and physical illnesses but also demonstrate the unique association of this comorbidity with poor quality of life and disability. Although there have been increased efforts to recognize and treat depression in the medically ill, our findings underscore the need to create similar programs to recognize and treat anxiety disorders in the medically ill.”

Anxiety Medications: a Last Resort

Traditional medicine is often suggested to control such anxiety disorders and it has helped many overcome their problems. However, many people fail to realize that prescription drugs should be considered a last resort.

Many of the most popular forms of anxiety medication like Valium or Xanax are potentially addictive and have been known on some occasion to contribute to ill health. While strong medication may be the only answer in extreme cases, often times psychotherapy and alternative medicine or practice can help to alleviate the stress.

Ignoring anxiety attacks, and simply living with the pain is another option to consider. However, whether in adults or children, it should be balanced with productive self-help treatment, not just ignoring the anxious feelings.

A healthy diet, exercise, meditation and relaxation, along with self-help reassurance can go along way in freeing a person from constant anxiety. However, just ignoring the pain and coping with the anxiety with no real defense plan could be a health risk. It could lead to ulcers, breathing problems and even heart disease in the long run.

References

1. Simon NM, Blacker D, Korbly NB, et al. Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism in anxiety disorders revisited: new data and literature review. J Affect Disord. 2002;69:209-217.

2. Goodwin RD, Stein MB. Peptic ulcer disease and neuroticism in the United States adult population. Psychother Psychosom. 2003;72:10-15.

3. Sareen J, Cox BJ, Clara I, Asmundson GJG. The relationship between anxiety disorders and physical disorders in the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey. Depress Anxiety. 2005;21:193-202. Full Text

4. Goodwin RD. Self-reported hay fever and panic attacks in the community. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2002;88:556-559.

5. McWilliams LA, Goodwin RD, Cox BJ. Depression and anxiety associated with three pain conditions: results from a nationally representative sample. Pain. 2004;111:77-83.

6. McWilliams LA, Cox BJ, Enns MW. Mood and anxiety disorders associated with chronic pain: an examination in a nationally representative sample. Pain. 2003;106:127-133.

7. Kawachi I, Sparrow D, Vokonas PS, Weiss ST. Symptoms of anxiety and risk of coronary heart disease: the Normative Aging Study. Circulation. 1994;90:2225-2229.

8. Albert CM, Chae CU, Rexrode KM, Manson JE, Kawachi I. Phobic anxiety and risk of coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death among women. Circulation. 2005;111:480-487.

9. Honda K, Goodwin RD. Cancer and mental disorders in a national community sample: findings from the National Comorbidity Survey. Psychother Psychosom. 2004;73:235-242.)