Unveiling the hidden toll of anxiety
The theme this year for mental health week is anxiety but have you ever considered the longer-term physical effects of anxiety on the body?
The fight or flight response is triggered as an automatic reaction to a stressful or frightening event. The response is triggered by hormones that are released to prepare your body to either run away or to stay and fight. These hormones stimulate the pituitary and adrenal glands that release adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
Usually, your body returns to its usual state within an hour or so of the response being triggered. However, for those living with anxiety, keeping your body in this heightened state can have real and long-lasting physical effects.
Physical symptoms of anxiety
Muscle tension & chronic pain
Frequent distress signals to your nervous system can cause muscles to contract or tighten often. This can lead to cramped, stiff, sore muscles and aches and pains that spread through the body.
This can result in the individual developing chronic pain conditions such as joint pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia etc... as well as an increase in migraines and lower back pain.
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) musculoskeletal problems account for 12.6% of the days lost due to sickness absence in 2022. If supporting individuals in managing their anxiety can reduce this percentage even a little, this could mean a huge business saving in terms of costs, time, and impact on other team members.
Central nervous system
The fight or flight response causes the release of hormones and chemicals to help you deal with the immediate threat. For those living with an anxiety disorder long term exposure to these hormones and chemicals can be harmful.
In releasing stress hormones regularly, your body can increase the frequency of headaches, dizziness, and depression.
Increased levels of the hormone cortisol in your body can lead to weight gain. Cortisol stimulates sugar cravings, which leads to dopamine being released, which is why we will turn to sweet foods when we are stressed. Over time this could lead to weight gain and obesity (which increases the risk of other conditions such as type 2 diabetes).
Adrenaline is released to help you to cope with the stressful or dangerous situation, it makes your heart beat faster to increase blood flow to the brain and muscles and will make you breathe more quickly to increase the levels of oxygen in your body, making you more able to react to the situation.
Over time the presence of adrenaline can negatively affect your body and lead to damage to your blood vessels, an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks or stroke.
In fact, if you already have heart disease, anxiety disorders may raise the risk of coronary events.
Digestive & Urinary systems
The hormones that are released during the fight or flight response can negatively affect the way food is moved through the digestive track. For some people it slows down, leading to bloating, pain, and constipation, whilst for others it speeds up, leading to diarrhea.
The excess stomach acid released to speed up digestion during the fight or flight response can cause stomach pains, cramping, nausea or vomiting. It can also over time weaken pressure in the band of muscle that keeps the stomach closed, leading to stomach acid leaking up into the esophagus, leading to the development of Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
There is a direct impact between the brain and the stomach and intestine and vice versa, known as the Brain-Gut connection. Certain gastrointestinal conditions, such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) peptic ulcers, can worsen due to stress. And in some cases, the recommended treatment for gastrointestinal conditions with no identifiable cause is to treat the individual for anxiety alongside their physical symptoms.
When feeling anxious, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, which increases pulse and breathing rate. Following this your immune system gets brief boost as your brain is getting more oxygen to respond to the situation
But if your levels of cortisol remain high it can over time decrease white blood cells and lead to a weakened immune system making you more susceptible to viral infections. These (according to the Office of National Statistics) make up 23.9% of all days lost due to absence in 2022. If supporting and treating those individuals experiencing anxiety leads to a reduction in days lost here, then this would equate to a large overall saving for business.
There are also some studies that suggest that increased levels of stress or anxiety can contribute to your risk factors for developing cancer.
Also affected by the elevated levels of cortisol causing inflammation are autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriatic arthritis, and psoriasis.
When feeling anxious your breathing rate speeds up and becomes short and shallow. This leads to the development of unhealthy breathing patterns where you are taking in too much oxygen compared to the carbon dioxide being released.
Excess carbon dioxide can lead to the blood supply to the brain being affected; leading to dizziness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, or in extreme cases a lack of consciousness.
The effects on your breathing can also worsen asthma (leading to more asthma attacks) and other respiratory conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). Respiratory conditions make up 8.7% of days lost due to sickness absence according to the ONS.
Do you know the actual cost of anxiety for the individual and your business?
With anxiety having a profound effect on physical conditions as well as an individual’s mental health it is possible that some of the physical conditions or reasons for absence being reported in your business or being experienced by individuals are routed in anxiety.
Treating the physical symptoms will only help to a degree as unless you treat the root cause of the issue, the anxiety, and what is causing this the individual will not be able to recover as they will experience repeated flare-ups when feeling anxious.
This affects not only the individual but also the business in terms of periods of absence, lack of productivity and impact on the wider team.
What can you do to help?
We can help with a wide range of benefits and services designed to support and potentially treat individuals suffering from anxiety and/or the physical symptoms of this. This could include access to employee benefits such as Private Medical Insurance (PMI) or added value services through a Group Income Protection policy. Which could also include counselling or short-term therapy through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or access to a virtual GP (General Practitioner) for clinical advice.
Ease of use and clear communication around support is key here. Ensure that all employees know where and how to access this, particularly line managers who will likely be the affected employees first port of call.
It is important for your employees to feel comfortable opening up and talking about their anxiety, which starts from the top down and is very dependent on the culture of the business. A culture where trust, respect and psychological safety are at its core will more naturally mean that people feel empowered to speak out and share experiences.
This creates a positive snowball effect where others hear them speaking about their struggles and see how they are overcome, or how they can start to work through them, which inspires them to do the same and to seek appropriate clinical support or coping mechanisms.