Christa Gary



Effects of Anxiety on the Nervous System

Anxiety is a common mental health disorder that affects millions of people each year. Clinical studies have been conducted resulting in anxiety disorders compromising the quality of life and psychosocial functioning. (AJP, 2000). When a person is experiencing anxiety, the autonomic nervous system is activated and results in physiological bodily symptoms. This includes but is not limited to: panic attacks, shortness of breath, chest pain, tachycardia, trembling, sweating or numbness in the arms and legs. 

According to the Short-Form Health Survey, panic disorders emerged as being associated with psychological distress and impairment in physical and cognitive functioning. (AJP, 2000). The sympathetic nervous system and autonomic nervous system respond accordingly to stress and fear. In order to balance these emotions, the parasympathetic nervous system acknowledges this reaction by turning off the stressor. Although the parasympathetic nervous system returns the body to a calm resting state, the sympathetic nervous system can cause the body to maintain a constant state of tension. When the body stays in this state for an extended amount of time, it can lead to long term side effects such as depression, high blood pressure, or a weakened immune system. (ACUK, 2017).

Long term anxiety can result in the body staying in an incessant state of distress. According to an interview conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area Program, men have higher rates of substance abuse and social temperaments, while women have higher rates of somatization disorders associated with anxiety. (JAMA, 1988).  These effects can be life long as chronic anxiety can greatly affect the body’s physical and emotional wellness. 

Not only does anxiety impact the body, but it also forces the brain to attempt to fight off any stressors. When someone is experiencing anxious or stressful feelings, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are activated in the central nervous system. This increases the body’s alertness and sets off what is known as the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is an uncontrolled and natural physiological reaction to a situation in which an individual perceives as dangerous or threatening. The body and brain react and prepare the person to fight that stressor or run away from it. This response has evolved over the course of human life that allows us to increase our chances of survival and adapt to contemporary situations. (APA, 2010).

Anxiety disorders involve a higher risk for other health disturbances such as substance abuse, impaired ability to construct social relationships, increases likelihood for adverse cardiac events, and escalates suicide rates. Since this condition is very common and can be presented in varying processes, it is best managed by mental health professionals. Anxiety is commonly treated with diverse remedies including medication, psychotherapy, diet adjustments, cognitive therapy, or support groups. Although there is not a clear solution to fully rid the body and mind of anxiety, personalized treatments can provide needed relief to contribute to the success of regaining control of your emotions.  In order to avoid significant functional impairment caused by this disorder, anxiety should be closely monitored and treated to avert life long circumstances associated with this disorder. 


Mendlowicz, Mauro V., et al. “Quality of Life in Individuals with Anxiety Disorders.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 1 May 2000.

Darrel A. Regier, MD. “One-Month Prevalence of Mental Disorders in the United States.” Archives of General Psychiatry, JAMA Network, 1 Nov. 1988.

“The Biological Effects and Consequences of Anxiety.” Anxiety Care UK

“Apa PsycNet.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association.