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How worrying affects your body

Are you an excessive worrier? Perhaps you subconsciously think that if you “worry enough”, you can prevent bad things from happening. But the fact is worrying can affect your body in ways that may surprise you. When worrying becomes excessive, it can lead to feelings of high anxiety and even cause you to be physically ill.

What happens with excessive worrying?

Worrying is feeling uneasy or being overly concerned about a situation or problem. With excessive worrying, your mind and body go into overdrive as you constantly focus on “what might happen”.

In the midst of excessive worrying, you may suffer with high anxiety - even panic - during all of your waking hours. Many chronic worriers tell of feeling a sense of impending doom or unrealistic fears that only increase their worries. Ultra-sensitive to their environment and to the criticism of others, excessive worriers may see anything - and anyone - as a potential threat.

Chronic worrying affects your daily life so much that it interferes with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep and job performance. Many people who worry excessively are so anxiety-ridden that they seek relief in harmful lifestyle habits such as overeating, eating junk food, cigarette smoking or misusing alcohol and drugs.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. Ongoing anxiety, though, may be the result of a disorder such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder or social anxiety. Anxiety disorders are common and according to the NHS, approximately one in 20 people is affected by generalised anxiety disorder at some stage in their life. Anxiety manifests itself in multiple ways and does not discriminate by age, gender or race.

Stressful events such as an exam or a job interview can make anyone feel a bit anxious. Sometimes a little worry or anxiety is helpful. It can help you get ready for an upcoming situation. For instance, if you’re preparing for a job interview, a little worry or anxiety may push you to find out more about the position. Then you can present yourself more professionally to the potential employer. Worrying about an exam may help you study more and be more prepared on exam day.

But excessive worriers react quickly and intensely to these stressful situations or triggers. Even thinking about the situation can cause chronic worriers great distress and disability. Excessive worry or ongoing fear or anxiety is harmful when it becomes so irrational that you can’t focus on reality or think clearly. People with high anxiety have difficulty shaking their worries. When that happens, they may experience actual physical symptoms.

Can excessive worrying and anxiety cause a stress response?

Stress comes from the demands and pressures we experience each day. Long queues in shops, rush hour traffic, a constantly ringing phone or a chronic illness are all examples of things that can cause stress on a daily basis. When worries and anxiety become excessive, chances are you’ll trigger the stress response.

There are two elements to the stress response. The first is the perception of the challenge. The second is an automatic physiological reaction called the “fight or flight” response that brings on a surge of adrenaline and sets your body on “red alert”. There was a time when the “fight or flight” response protected our ancestors from such dangers as wild animals that could easily make a meal out of them. Although we don’t ordinarily encounter wild animals we need to run from today, dangers still exist. They’re there in the form of a demanding co-worker, a colicky baby or a dispute with a loved one.

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