Worried Sick: When Worry Impacts Your Physical Health

It happens to everyone at some point — a familiar nervous feeling that comes with a racing heartbeat, fast breathing, sweating, and sometimes trembling. Being nervous is normal, and can even be healthy, but when that unsettled feeling occurs more regularly, or when it begins to affect everyday life, something more may be going on. 

Sometimes what starts as a simple worry can turn into something much more, and can even end up causing physical symptoms that you need to learn to deal with. 

Can Worrying Make You Sick?

The simple answer is, yes. Too much worrying can make you, well, worried sick. 

What is excessive worry?

Worry is a standard response to unfamiliar situations. Most of the time, worrying is the body’s natural response to something that you need to manage. The difference when you worry excessively, though, is your nervous system stops returning to normal after that unknown or unfamiliar situation ends.

Unfortunately, people who deal with chronic fears or excessive worry are affected daily. Their nervous system is on high alert, even when they’re doing normal, standard, common things. 

If you have excessive worry, you might feel:

  • Daily anxiety about the past, present, and future
  • Fear that minor body issues are signs of serious illness
  • Dysphoric brooding or contemplation
  • Fear of having a panic attack
  • Intrusive and frightening thoughts
  • A need for compulsive reassurance-seeking

While excessive worry can lead to feelings of anxiety, there are also many differences between worry vs anxiety to be aware of. Excessive worry and anxiety can be very debilitating. For some, the anxiety is all-encompassing, invading every thought and damaging healthy relationships, behavior patterns, work or school life, and more. 

“Excessive worrying floods most of our thoughts and creates impairments in functioning in other categories. Categories include work/school, relationships, or our relationship between our mind and body.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

Effects of Worrying on Physical and Mental Health

If you’ve ever wondered, can worrying make you sick the answer is a resounding yes. Unfortunately, the term worried sick is a pretty accurate description of what’s happening. Chronic and constant worry can cause issues with your body, both physically and mentally. 

Physical health

Excessive worry can affect all the systems in the body, including:

  • Immune
  • Respiratory
  • Cardiovascular
  • Gastrointestinal
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Endocrine
  • Nervous system
  • Reproductive system

Immune system

Your immune system is responsible for keeping you healthy. A functioning immune system protects the body from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins. When the immune system is suppressed, the body is more susceptible to illness. 

Unfortunately, too much constant stress can have a significant impact on the immune system. Studies have found that chronic stress can suppress both humoral and cellular immunity. This means that uncontrolled anxiety can make your body unable to fight off the usual pathogens and viruses. 

Respiratory system

The respiratory system includes the nose, mouth, lungs, and airways. A working respiratory system allows you to breathe and move air into your lungs.

Unfortunately, in addition to reduced immunity, chronic worry is also linked to increased risk of respiratory issues, including asthma and upper respiratory infections. Furthermore, scientific studies have linked chronic stress and anger to deteriorating lung function. 

Cardiovascular system

Your cardiovascular system includes your heart, blood, and blood vessels. Its primary job is to move oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body. 

However, chronic stress and worry can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system, causing hypertension and cardiovascular disease. For example, a meta-analysis of 20 studies (including more than 250,000 subjects) found that anxiety led to a 26% increased risk of coronary artery disease. 

Gastrointestinal system

Your gastrointestinal (GI) system has a vital function — digesting the foods you eat. Not only that, but then it absorbs the necessary nutrients the body needs and excretes the rest through the intestines.  

When stress occurs, the body temporarily halts the digestive system so energy can go toward the body’s fight or flight response. During a period of chronic stress, the stomach doesn’t have time to recover, which can cause numerous GI issues like heartburn, indigestion, or constipation. 

While stress isn’t likely the cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high levels of chronic worry often predict the clinical outcome in people who develop IBS. This means that people with more consistent and severe anxiety can have the worst clinical symptoms of IBS. 

Musculoskeletal system

The musculoskeletal system contains all the moving parts of your body, including bones, muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue. Its primary function is to allow movement and protect your internal organs.  

Chronic stress and worry cause your muscles to tense up for long periods and can lead to health problems like tension headaches and migraines. 

Endocrine system

The endocrine system is responsible for regulating your body’s hormones for energy level, growth, and development. When the system is under extreme stress, though, there are changes in the hormone levels in your body.

Consistent stress and anxiety can result in disorders of the endocrine system like obesity, gonadal dysfunction, or Graves’ disease. 

Nervous system

The nervous system is a complex communication system that transmits signals all over the body. When the body suffers from prolonged stress, the constant activation of the nervous system often harms other body systems.

There’s a link between cognitive performance and chronic stress. When the nervous system is under persistent stress or anxiety, it can cause a decrease in cognitive performance. 

Mental health

Your mental health is determined by genetic, psychological, environmental, and developmental factors. Chronic worry and stress can play a massive role in your overall mental health and well-being. 

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder, commonly known as GAD, is the prevalent worry or fear about everyday life. Constant concern is linked to GAD. Chronic worry usually starts with fretting over one or two important things (for example, money and work), but then your thought patterns snowball and become all-encompassing. As a result, people with GAD are often in a constant state of worry.  

Depression

Depression is a mental health condition that negatively affects how you feel about yourself and your environment. 

Some research suggests that repeated stress can make the brain susceptible to depression. Consistent worry leads to neurodegenerative changes in the brain, leaving it vulnerable to depression symptoms including, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. 

Panic disorder

People with panic disorder have frequent and unexpected panic attacks. Worrying yourself sick can actually cause panic disorder to develop in some people. While panic disorder may not occur right after an acutely stressful event, it’s not uncommon for symptoms to occur weeks after the experience. 

Sometimes panic disorder leads to other conditions, like agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving the house. For example, when someone has an unexpected panic attack in a public space, they might start to fear having another one and therefore choose to stay at home in hopes of preventing their next attack. 

Social anxiety

Social anxiety is prevalent in people who fear social settings or groups. Chronic worry might lead to social anxiety when people don’t feel comfortable around others. 

How to Stop Worrying Yourself Sick

Constant pressure or stress can be overwhelming, and figuring out how to stop worrying isn’t always easy. These options are just a start, but they’re worth exploring.

Talk to a doctor

If you feel that constant worry has made you physically sick, it’s essential that you talk to a doctor. They will likely give you a physical exam and review your medical history and background. 

If necessary, they may do bloodwork to rule out any physical health concerns. Many primary care doctors can diagnose and treat symptoms related to excessive worry. If not, they’ll refer you to another resource. 

Avoid alcohol and reduce caffeine 

Alcohol is a depressant, and while that may seem like a good idea when you’re stressed, it actually doesn’t make you feel better. Excessive alcohol use or abuse can cause physical issues, lead to addiction, and exacerbate other mental health conditions. 

Caffeine can increase your heart rate and interfere with your sleep, both of which can worsen chronic anxiety. 

Get fresh air

Though you might not feel like getting outside when you’re overwhelmed, a small amount of exercise, even a short walk, can increase your body’s endorphins. These endorphins are responsible for relieving stress and improving a sense of well-being. 

Meditate

There’s a reason why so many people meditate for stress relief. Meditation involves guided breathing and mindfulness to manage stress and anxiety. There are numerous ways for beginners to learn how to meditate — through books, apps, podcasts, or online videos. 

“We can create distance between the trigger, the item that is worrying us, and the absorption of the item. Some examples include focusing on our temperature, getting involved with intensive exercise, and focusing on our breath in combination with tensing and releasing of our muscles.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

Being worried sick is more than just a catchphrase. It’s a legitimate issue that you should be concerned about if you feel constantly worried. Excessive and chronic stress can lead to physical problems including high blood pressure, migraine, indigestion, or asthma. In addition, worry is linked to the development of several mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), agoraphobia, panic disorder, and depression. 

Thankfully, if you recognize that you’re worrying too much, and it’s starting to affect your physical or mental health, there are ways you can get help. First, don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend or family member for advice. Never be afraid to contact your doctor for a check-up. If you haven’t tried meditation, journaling, or yoga for stress, now might be the time to start. These and other self care habits can help ground you and offer effective stress relief.  

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can connect you with online services and therapists that are able to help. If you are experiencing constant worry, get the help you need so you can get back to a happier and healthier life. 

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Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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