Stressed out about your health? You're not alone in your fears—nearly half of Americans are worried about their health at any given time, making it the fourth most common cause of stress and anxiety, according to a poll from the American Psychological Association. And with scary new headlines coming out every day—not to mention all the contradictory scientific studies—who can blame you? But all this anxiety about your health may be having an unintended consequence: Ironically, it may actually be making you sicker.
Anyone who's ever had an anxiety attack knows that one of the worst parts is feeling like you might die. Sufferers feel dizzy, short of breath, and weak. They may experience chest pain and palpitations, leaving them to wonder if they're just anxious or really having a heart attack. And while most of the time a panic attack is just a panic attack, it turns out that being chronically anxious can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease in the future, according to a new study published in the BMJ.
Researchers studied 7,000 Norwegians and found that worrying, particularly about your health, increased the risk of heart disease by an astonishing 73 percent. On the surface, this seems counterintuitive: Wouldn't people who are the most concerned about their health also be the most likely to go to the doctor, get lots of exercise, and eat a healthy diet? Not so, the researchers reported. Instead, people who worried a lot about their health weren't any more likely to exercise than non-worriers and were more likely to smoke, two well-known risk factors for heart attacks. Worse, the stress hormones released by their anxiety upped their risk even further.
And it wasn't just the hard-core hypochondriacs who saw the spike in heart disease. Even low-key worriers saw a relative increase, says lead study author Line Iden Berg, M.D., a clinician at the Sandviken University Hospital and a researcher at the University of Bergen. "We found that even slightly increased levels of health anxiety also increased the risk of ischemic heart disease," says Iden Berg. "As psychiatrists, we always tell our patients that it's not dangerous to be anxious. That might be true today, but it isn't true over time," she says, adding that the real damage from chronic worrying accumulates and you may not feel the full effects for years.
Add these findings to previous research that has found that anxiety increases your risk of migraines, cancer growth, weight gain, and depression, among other illnesses, and you have something real to worry about. "There's a lot of evidence showing how your mood can affect your health outcomes," explains Nicole Weinberg, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, who was not associated with the study. "It's like the power of suggestion. For instance, a recent patient of mine had a fatalistic attitude after a recent bypass surgery and so he stopped taking his medications and reverted to alcoholism, essentially making his worst fears about his health come true."
But the news isn't all grim. Just like a little bit of worry can ratchet up your health risks, a little bit of stress relief can significantly decrease those risks. Simple, anxiety-reducing techniques like mindfulness, meditation and yoga have been proven to reduce both your worry and your risk of heart disease. "A little positivity gets you a long way," says Weinberg. "Good energy translates to better health." This study also shows the importance of talking to your doc about your health concerns so they can help put your worries into perspective and make a plan for managing anxiety. Need a plan to eliminate stress now? Try these 5 simple stress management tips that really work.