Anxiety is a mostly internal mental illness with a plethora of characteristics that cannot be seen by the naked eye, such as excessive worrying, increased heart rate, and an overall feeling of agitation or stress (Julson, 2018). A study conducted from 2001 to 2003 showed that over 22% of adults aged 18-29 suffer from an anxiety disorder, and more women typically have some form of anxiety than men. Over 43% of people have at least mild anxiety, according to that same study (NIMH 2017). Most characteristics of anxiety are mental and not physical, therefore it can be difficult to pinpoint different triggers and other signs. However, there are some physical characteristics of anxiety that people do not typically associate with anxiety.
Probably the most prominent physical sign of anxiety is the habit of biting nails. While having anxiety and biting nails are not mutually exclusive, they are commonly associated with one another. Many people start biting their nails during childhood, and while there are products designed to correct the issue, like bitter-tasting nail polish, they don’t delve deeper into why specifically children bite their nails (Bakardzhieva, 2017). For some people, it is a form of self-soothing behavior that becomes ingrained in our body’s learned behavior, causing the brain to associate this behavior with a stress response. I have been biting my nails for as long as I can remember, and sometimes I don’t even realize that I am doing it at the moment. I have social anxiety, and nail-biting helps me cope with the day-to-day challenges of interacting with new people.
Other notable signs of anxiety include trichotillomania, which is the chronic pulling of hair. Oftentimes people do not even realize they do it, and it is mainly done in response to high-stress situations, but can also be done out of boredom or sadness (Bakardzhieva, 2017). It becomes ingrained in our behavior to the point where you do not even realize you are pulling out your hair. Another physical sign of anxiety includes grinding teeth. Also known as bruxism, grinding of teeth can lead to increased muscle problems and jaw pain. Much of the behaviors commonly associated with anxiety are developed over time, and they are not part of our instincts.
The behaviors that stem from anxiety come from a biological response known as fight or flight. Many people exhibit either of these feelings during an anxious episode or a stressful situation. When someone exhibits a flight response, they tend to run away or avoid the situation, but when they exhibit a fight response, they decide to confront the situation. Additionally, many people experience changes in heart rate, flushed or pale skin, shaking, and dilated pupils. In many cases, our responses to anxiety can be a manifestation of our body’s natural desire to comfort or protect us from a potentially anxiety-inducing situation.
Long term effects of anxiety include depression, insomnia, or chronic pain (Leonard, 2018). The impacts of this mental illness can take a drastic toll on the body because stress can cause the immune system to weaken and become more susceptible to infection or illness because stress causes a reduction in the amount of antigens that are produced. As a result, stress can give way to illnesses like headaches, the flu, cardiovascular disease, and ulcers (McLeod, 2010).
Anxiety is a complicated and widely misunderstood mental illness despite it being incredibly common among various age groups and ethnicities. It looks different for everybody. Although anxiety can have a large toll on the body, there are effective treatments that can help manage symptoms. These include therapy or medication, both of which have proven to be really successful in alleviating symptoms of anxiety among patients.
Any Anxiety Disorder. (2017). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
Bakardzhieva, T. (2017, November 21). Common Habits caused by Anxiety. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://thriveglobal.com/stories/common-habits-caused-by-anxiety/
Julson, E. (2018, April 10). 11 Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/anxiety-disorder-symptoms
Leonard, J. (2018). Symptoms, signs, and side effects of anxiety. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322510
McLeod, S. A. (2010). Stress, illness and the immune system. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/stress-immune.html