The Health Risks of Anxiety, and How to Avoid Them

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The Health Risks of Anxiety, and How to Avoid Them

Ignoring anxiety doesn’t help — and it could be harming your physical well-being. Long-term anxiety has serious health risks. Use these simple strategies to ease worry and protect your health. 
Everyone worries. “We can’t help worrying as a first response to unknowns, mistakes, or perceived threats or risks,” says Tamar E. Chansky, PhD. Chansky is the author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety and founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety. But what we do next is key.  

“Often, we know when we’re worrying, and we can catch ourselves,” says Chansky. “There’s a moment where we shake our heads and say, 'Enough!’ In that moment, we are ready to move into problem-solving mode.” 

But other times, we can’t get past the worry. Instead, it sticks around and gets worse over time. When fear and anxiety last for at least six months, and when you’re anxious about several things — like health, work, and relationships — it’s a sign of generalized anxiety disorder. 

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. About one in five American adults have had an anxiety disorder in the past year. And it’s not only a mental health issue. A study in the International Journal of General Medicine looked at middle-aged women who reported having regular or long-term stress. At least 28% of them also had physical symptoms. On the list: aches, pains, headaches, and gastrointestinal complaints. And another study found that people with both heart disease and anxiety have twice the risk of dying from any cause, compared to those without anxiety. These findings were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. 

“When we feel anxious, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It readies itself for survival,” Chansky says. “The heart starts racing and the lungs pump harder, all to make us run faster from the enemy. Which is great if there’s a tiger or woolly mammoth. But when it’s a first date or a job interview, this over-the-top response becomes a problem rather than protection.” 

That response comes from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. “When this system remains activated chronically, it can lead to increased blood pressure and heart rate, and diabetes,” says Lana Watkins, PhD. Watkins is a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. She was the lead author of the study about anxiety and depression increasing the risk of death in heart disease patients.  

Here’s the good news: You have the power to dial down your anxiety. Anxiety disorders are typically caused by a combination of three things: about 50% genetics, 10% situational stress, and 40% the choices we make in response to stress, says Chansky. In other words, there’s a lot of room to take action that leads to less anxiety. Here are six steps to try.

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that teaches you how to stay present in the moment. It’s about noticing your feelings without judging them as good, bad, or anything in between. Research shows that practicing mindfulness meditation regularly can help you recognize your anxiety and accept it. And over time, it can reduce anxiety by acting on the parts of the brain that control those feelings. 

Jonathan Kaplan, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and director of the SoHo CBT + Mindfulness Center. He recommends practicing this simple meditation daily: 

Start by focusing on your breathing. Take several deep breaths. Allow yourself to feel the physical sensations that come with each breath in and out. Maybe you notice a subtle “breeze” around your nostrils or the gentle rise and fall of your chest and belly. Simply keep your awareness here for about five minutes, bringing it back any time your mind wanders. If you notice that you’ve become distracted from your breathing, say to yourself, “Oh, well,” or “There’s the nag.” Then bring your attention back to your breath.
Lack of sleep can make anxiety even worse, Watkins says. To help you sleep more soundly at night, she recommends 30 to 45 minutes of medium-intensity exercise on most days of the week. Try brisk walking or biking, which can help release feel-good endorphins to fight anxiety. Or do yoga, which helps put your body into relaxation mode. 
“Learn to recognize the ‘sound’ of worry and realize that it is unreliable,” Chansky says. Listen for that little voice in your head that makes worries sound bigger than they are. Then give it a name like “Miss Perfect,” “The Nag,” or “The Criticizer,” she says. Discounting it with a silly name can help you reduce the weight you give it. 
Chansky says it can help to write down what you’re worrying about. Next to each worry, write down what you believe will really happen or is true. Then do a comparison. When you see them side by side, it might become clear how overblown the worry is. “Remember: Worry is the story we are telling ourselves about the situation,” Chansky says. We can choose to tell the story in a more realistic and positive light.  
Just like you would with an overbearing friend or co-worker, you might have to set boundaries and make “Miss Perfect” wait. “Make worry appointments with yourself every day,” Chansky suggests. “Rather than getting off track with worry throughout your day, choose five minutes when you are going to list your worries.” Then fact-check them (see 4 above). See if putting your worries to the test makes your mind be more honest with you. 
If you’re stuck worrying about something, call in your own panel of experts in your mind, Chansky says. “Write down four trusted voices of reason: Oprah, the Dalai Lama, your grandmother, a favorite teacher.” Then imagine you’ve asked them about the situation. “Even though it’s you thinking of the options, you’re stretching your perspective and getting out of the vice grip your anxiety has on your fears and flaws,” she says. 

If you try this advice and anxiety is still a regular part of your life, it’s important to talk to your doctor about getting it in check. Remember, anxiety isn’t all in your mind — it can harm your body too. Your doctor can help you find solutions, such as therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes, that can give you much-needed relief.  

If you’re struggling with anxiety, help is here. You have access to mental health support included with your Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska (BCBSNE) health plan. To connect with a nurse, download the free Wellframe app, enter access code NECHAT and your BCBSNE member ID.


[1] “Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed July 21, 2021.  

[2] “Any Anxiety Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed July 21, 2021.  

[3] Mineo, L. “With Mindfulness, Life’s In the Moment.” The Harvard Gazette, Harvard University, Accessed July 21, 2021. 

[4] Hange D, Mehlig K, Lissner L, et al. “Perceived mental stress in women associated with psychosomatic symptoms, but not mortality: observations from the Population Study of Women in Gothenburg, Sweden.” International Journal of General Medicine, vol 24, no. 6, 2013, pp: 307-315. 

[5] Watkins LL, Koch GG, Sherwood A, et al. “Association of anxiety and depression with all-cause mortality in individuals with coronary heart disease.” Journal of the American Heart Association, vol. 19, no. 2, 2013. 

[6] Khoury B, Lecomte T, Fortin G, et al. “Mindfulness-Based Therapy: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis.” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 33, no. 6, 2013, pp: 763-771.