As an everyday emotion, anxiety can be a good thing, prompting us to take extra precautions. But when anxiety persists, it can undermine our physical health. Evidence suggests that people with anxiety disorders are at greater risk for some chronic medical conditions.
The July 2008 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch describes several conditions affected by anxiety:
AdvertisementGastrointestinal disorders: About 10% to 20% of Americans suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or functional dyspepsia. In these disorders, the nerves regulating digestion appear to be hypersensitive to stimulation. There are no firm data on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in people with such digestive disorders, but a recent New Zealand study found an association between high anxiety levels and the development of IBS.
Chronic respiratory disorders: Although results vary, most studies have found a high rate of anxiety symptoms and panic attacks in patients who have chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with women at greater risk than men. In several studies involving COPD patients, anxiety has been associated with more frequent hospitalization and with more severe distress at every level of lung function. So even if anxiety doesn't affect the progress of the disease, it takes a substantial toll on quality of life.
Heart disease: Anxiety disorders have also been linked to the development of heart disease and to heart attacks in people who already have heart disease. Two recent studies concluded that among people with heart disease, those suffering from an anxiety disorder were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those with no history of anxiety disorders.
Harvard Women's Health Watch reports good news as well: understanding and treating anxiety can often improve the outcome for people with chronic diseases.