A new study suggests the two conditions may be linked, but only for a specific group of people
It's no surprise that both stress and anxiety can have lasting negative effects on your overall health over time, causing everything from an increased heart attack risk to gastrointestinal issues. (FYI, this is why the news makes you so anxious.)
And not only is anxiety incredibly difficult to deal with, but it's also incredibly common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. What's more, women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience anxiety over the course of their lives—as if dealing with periods, pregnancy, and fluctuating hormones weren't hard enough, right? Now, a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge says anxiety could cause another really major health concern: cancer.
In the study, researchers focused on people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is characterized by excessive worry most days of the week for more than six months, as well as physical symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep problems. The study notes that while previous research has examined whether or not anxiety is related to early death from major diseases (which includes cancer), the results haven't been consistent.
To get a closer look at the relationship between GAD and cancer, researchers looked at data on patients with GAD who also died from cancer, which was gathered as part of a previous study. Men with anxiety had double the risk of eventually dying from cancer. Strangely, they found that the same correlation does not exist for women—at least in their set of data (researchers suggest further testing).
"We can't say that one causes the other," said lead researcher Olivia Remes at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress (ECNP). "It is possible that men with anxiety have lifestyles or other risk factors that increase cancer risk that we did not account for completely." Remes also spoke out about the need for people in power—researchers, government officials, and doctors—to pay more attention to anxiety disorders. "A large number of people are affected by anxiety, and its potential effects on health are substantial," she said. "With this study, we show that anxiety is more than just a personality trait, but rather, it is a disorder that may be associated with risk of death from conditions, such as cancer."
David Nutt, a professor at Imperial College and ex-president of the ECNP, who has also run a U.K. clinic specializing in anxiety disorder, said the results did not surprise him. "The intense distress that these people suffer, often on a daily basis, is usually associated with a great deal of bodily stress that is bound to have a major impact on many physiological processes including immune supervision of cancerous cells."
So while the standout results of this study mainly pertain to men, it's undoubtedly true that anxiety (and other mental health disorders for that matter) need to be taken seriously as general physical health problems. If you have anxiety, should you be concerned? The study authors acknowledge that there might be other lifestyle factors involved here, since people who are super anxious are more likely to self-medicate with substances that can also contribute to cancer risk (see: cigarettes and alcohol). And also remember that this particular research focuses only on GAD, so there's no immediate cause for concern if you have a different form of anxiety. While more research is definitely needed, it seems like this study is a step in the right direction toward figuring out the link between stress, anxiety, and illness. In the meantime, here are 7 chill yoga poses to help ease anxiety.