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Depression and Anxiety Special Report

Anxiety and Your Physical Health

The link between depression and physical illness has been well explored, and now researchers are turning their attention to the role of anxiety disorders in prompting medical problems. Johns Hopkins sheds light on this intriguing connection.

The latest research shows a strong connection between anxiety disorders -- generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive- compulsive disorder -- and physical conditions. In fact, a recent study found that those with anxiety were up to twice as likely to have a physical illness, too.

Investigators from Canada looked at the association between anxiety disorders and physical conditions in 4,181 German adults (1,913 men and 2,268 women) between ages 18 and 65. Of the subjects, 429 (8%) reported having an anxiety disorder in the past month, and 2,610 (61%) noted having a physical condition. Anxiety was most commonly linked with lung and gastrointestinal illnesses, arthritis, allergies, thyroid problems, and migraine headaches.

Most people with both anxiety and a physical illness said that the anxiety came first. Their mental distress also appeared to make their physical ailments worse: They had a poorer quality of life than those who suffered from just anxiety or a physical ailment alone, and were more likely to have one or more days of inactivity than those with physical problems alone.

A U.S. study of the link between anxiety and physical disorders by the same researchers produced similar results and found that post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attack, and agoraphobia were more likely than other anxiety disorders to be linked with physical ailments. Other investigators have shown that people with anxiety are at greater risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks, fertility problems, autoimmune conditions (such as lupus and multiple sclerosis), and skin disorders.

The Chicken or the Egg? The Canadian researchers said that while it is not entirely clear why anxiety is linked to physical illness, they suggested that anxiety could trigger one or more processes in the body that contribute to an illness. People may also try to self-medicate their anxiety with alcohol, drugs, or food and may develop a substance abuse disorder or obesity, which then could exacerbate both the physical and the mental illness. The same genetic or environmental factors could also cause both anxiety and a physical disorder.

Conversely, although most people in the study said that anxiety preceded physical illness, some may develop a medical problem first, and worrying about it may become serious enough to be classified as an anxiety disorder. For instance, migraine and arthritis may bring on anxious feelings about the severity of pain, when it may abate, or, if it goes away, whether it may return.

Since anxiety isn't often recognized as a cause of physical illness, you need to let your doctor know if you're suffering from symptoms or if you think you have a physical condition that may be linked to anxiety. You should also report symptoms such as numbness, tingling, or feeling hot, which could be signs of anxiety. This is especially important among older adults since anxiety is very common and tends to be characterized more by physical symptoms than by worry.

The bottom line: Getting help for anxiety and a physical illness may mean the difference between effective treatment of psychological symptoms or prolonged mental and physical suffering. It can bring tremendous relief from disquieting feelings, while also improving your overall health and quality of life.

Posted in Depression and Anxiety on November 19, 2008

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