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Anxiety May Increase the Risk of Physical Problems

Review on March 02, 2007

In a recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, researchers from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg (Canada) attempted to explore the connection between anxiety disorders and physical problems. The association between anxiety and physical illness has not been studied profusely before. In fact, according to the researchers, a number of the existing studies were limited in different ways, making this research necessary.

The research was led performed by Dr. Jitender Sareen and his colleagues in the department of psychiatry. They wanted to know if patients with physical illnesses are at increased risk of having an anxiety disorder. As well, they wanted to find out if the risk of the physical illness is worsened among those who already have an anxiety disorder.

anxiety attacks

To achieve the study, Dr. Sareen M.D. and his team used the German Health Survey (GHS), which was prepared between 1997 and 1999. This survey, which involved 4,181 adults, evaluated if participants had any physical illnesses through a questionnaire asking about 44 particular problems. For these reason, GHS used a medical interview conducted by a primary care physician, blood pressure measurements and blood and urine samples.

Also, for the psychiatric interviews, psychologists and physicians of GHS used the criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) to detect anxiety disorders

anxiety recurrent illnesses

Having an anxiety disorder was associated with having any type of physical problem, and specifically with respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, arthritis, allergies, thyroid diseases and migraine headaches.

Most individuals with both an anxiety disorder and physical illness developed the anxiety disorder first, and tended to have a poorer quality of life than those with anxiety disorders or physical problems alone. Those had both types of disorders also were more likely to have one or days of disability than those with physical illnesses alone.

Dr. Sareen indicated that future deeper studies must be performed (particularly as the age range in this study was 18-65), because the mechanisms of association between anxiety disorders and physical problems remain unknown. However, the results did offer some conclusions that may confirm that anxiety disorders and physical problems are closely connected:

  • The scientists also discovered that the anxiety disorder was more likely to have come about before the physical problem, and that the quality of life of the patient and their physical functioning were worse if they also had an anxiety disorder.

  • A physical illness, particularly if severe, eventually increases anxiety, leading to an anxiety disorder.

  • An anxiety disorder leads to an increased chance of illness as the result of biological changes caused by the anxiety disorder.

  • The presence of an anxiety disorders could trigger biological processes that contribute to illness or a third problem, such as a substance abuse disorder.

  • There may be common genetic, environmental, and/or personality factors that connect anxiety disorders and certain physical problems.

Finally, the findings of the study expand earlier works in clinical and community samples that noted an association between anxiety disorders and physical illnesses but also demonstrate the Anxiety does exacerbate symptoms of illnesses and problems. Dr. Sareen advises that doctors watch for anxiety disorder in their patients, especially those with the specific physical problems identified in the study. "Although there have been increased efforts to recognize and treat depression in the medically ill, our findings underscore the need to create similar programs to recognize and treat anxiety disorders in the medically ill," Dr. Sareen suggests.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by JAMA and Archives Journals.

  • "Anxiety Disorders May be Linked to Physical Illness" by Corinna Underwood
  • "Anxiety disorders may worsen physical problems" by Jase Donaldson
  • "Facts About Anxiety Disorders" 11 May 2006. National Institute of Mental Health. (Accessed 20 Oct 2006)
  • For more information, please contact: Dr. Jitender Sareen, psychiatry, 204-787-7078.