When you think of someone struggling with anxiety, what do you picture?
Do you see a bubbly mom with an infectious laugh, picking her two boys up from school and taking her sister on shopping trips? Do you imagine a talented performer, illuminating the stage with her charisma and a guitar? How about a successful, aspiring policy maker, making his way through law school one class at a time?
Chances are you think of none of these things. But you should.
Last week, Anna Clendening, a 20-year-old contestant on this season’s “America’s Got Talent,” shared her struggle with anxiety and depression at her audition. Her inspiring story and impressive performance received praise from the judges, the audience and thousands of fans. It also received skepticism of whether or not it was actually true. Regardless of whether it’s genuine or a “made-for-TV moment,” Clendening’s story prompts a poignant point: The disorder is not one-size-fits-all.
Anxiety and panic disorders affect approximately 40 million American adults each year — among them are teachers and students, journalists and entrepreneurs. It affects moms and dads. It can affect anyone, because it’s a condition that doesn’t discriminate.
The symptoms of anxiety are stark: You’re chronically stressed; sometimes you suffer from excruciating panic attacks or struggle with health complications. The thought of getting on a plane, or seeing a spider, or being in a room full of strangers can turn your blood to ice. You live in constant fear of what’s around the corner — and that is a terrifying reality to deal with.
But while anxiety may rule the lives of those who suffer from it, the condition doesn’t always define those lives. And many people tend to lose sight of that. In fact, there are a multitude of public figures — from celebrities to presidents — who have battled some form of an anxiety disorder, and most of America is none the wiser.
Someone incredibly close to me struggles with anxiety, but that’s not the first thing I say about her when I describe who she is as a person. In fact, many people don’t even know that she’s affected by the condition — and that’s because she refuses to let it dictate her life.
Yes, many people with anxiety are reserved, stressed and aloof. They can also be captivating and thrilling on a stage. These mannerisms are only a few pieces of the puzzle. Anxiety isn’t a personality trait — it’s a complicated condition that can touch even the brightest of people. The fact remains that there is still a stigma around a mental health issue that a lot of us don’t fully understand — and that is what we should be picturing when we think of anxiety.
Throat troubles. That croaky, squeaky voice that seems to have possessed your vocal chords is your immediate reaction to a stressful situation. When anxious feelings creep in, fluids are diverted to more essential locations in the body, causing spasms in the throat muscles. This results in tightness, making it dry and difficult to swallow.
Liver reactions. When the body undergoes stress and anxiety, the adrenal system produces an excessive amount of the stress hormone cortisol. That hormone production leads the liver to produce more glucose, the high-energy blood sugar that engages your “fight or flight” reactions. For most people, this extra blood sugar in the body can be simply reabsorbed with no real damage. However, for those at risk for diabetes, the extraneous blood sugar could potentially cause health issues.
Skin reactions. That cold, clammy sweat or your warm, flushed cheeks is the body’s outward sign of immediate stress — all due to a change in blood flow. When we experience anxiety, the body’s “fight or flight” system pushes more blood to your muscles — a useful reaction when there’s an immediate need for it. However, a long-term, overexposure to this reaction has the potential to make the skin age faster. Other skin reactions include perspiration and even increases in histamine, which can result in swelling. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, severe stress and anxiety can also trigger eczema outbreaks.
An active spleen. Anxiety doesn’t just engage the obvious organs like our brains and our hearts, but it even affects internal functions like our spleens and blood cells. In order to distribute more oxygen to the body that may have been depleted during the stressful situation, the spleen discharges extra red and white blood cells. Your blood flow also increases by 300 to 400 percent during this process in order to prep the rest of the body for added demands.
Tense muscles. When you start to feel anxious, the body naturally tightens up, creating strain on large muscle groups. Chronic stress and anxiety can exacerbate this tension, which can result in headaches, stiff shoulders, neck pain and even migraines. People in a constant state of stress also are at a higher risk for chronic musculoskeletal disorders.
After a while, chronic anxiety can have an effect on…
Your heart. Anxiety and chronic stress sufferers are more at risk for cardiovascular problems due to a constant increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure and overexposure to cortisol. According to the American Psychological Association, long-term stress can also lead to hypertension, arrhythmias and an increased risk for heart attack or stroke.
Your lungs. Studies have shown that there is a relationship between those who suffer from anxiety disorders and asthma. People who suffer from asthma are also more likely to experience panic attacks. According to research conducted by the University of Sao Paulo, there could also be a link between anxiety, asthma and its effects on balance.
Your brain. The most prominent reaction to anxiety is the psychological response to the condition. Chronic stress and anxiety can affect areas of the brain that influence long-term memory, short-term memory and chemical production, which can result in an imbalance. Additionally, chronic stress can constantly activate the nervous system which can in turn influence other systems in the body, triggering physical reactions, wear-and-tear on the body, fatigue and more.
People who suffer from anxiety also often have trouble falling asleep due to ruminating over worrisome thoughts. Approximately 54 percent of people say stress and anxiety influences their ability to drift off and more than 50 percent of men and more than 40 percent of women have trouble focusing the next day as a result, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Your immune system. Exposure to stress can take a negative toll on the immune system, causing the function to become suppressed due to the body’s “fight or flight” reaction. Studies have also found that when you’re stressed, you’re also more likely to catch a cold and more susceptible to infections and inflammation.
Your stomach. When your body experiences stress, it doesn’t properly regulate food digestion. Chronic and extreme stress can also have long-term effects on your intestines and what nutrients they absorb, causing reflux, bloating, diarrhea and sometimes even loss of bowel control.
Long-term stress and anxiety can also alter the body’s metabolism, which could lead to weight gain and possibly obesity. One study found that the constant release of cortisol in the bloodstream can reduce insulin sensitivity, and other recent research also discovered an association between adults who suffer from anxiety and physician-diagnosed ulcers.