This is the second post in The State of Anxiety series. The first post, “Anxiety: No Clear Cause,” established that while what causes anxiety disorders is complex and multi-faceted, these disorders are certainly diagnosable and treatable. This post considers a simple diagnosis—a physical cause.
Last summer I took some flyers with me to Pilates to share information about the book I had just submitted for publication with other studio members. The owner, who was instructing that afternoon, told the class about my book on the rising levels of anxiety and depression in young people and what parents, mentors, church leaders and others can do to support prevention and recovery.1 She encouraged participants to pick up a flyer after class.
That’s the day I met Carrie.
Carrie introduced herself and told me that with the stress of teachers and peers at school, her teenage daughter started showing signs of an anxiety disorder. (Anxiety is a normal fear response to a perceived threat, such as a test or a public speaking engagement. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, involves irrational or excessive fear that interrupt one’s ability to perform daily activities.) Carrie took her daughter to a doctor who ran an extensive series of blood tests and found that she was deficient in magnesium. After the diagnosis, she began taking a magnesium supplement, which has relieved many of her anxiety symptoms, particularly her inability to settle her mind at night and fall asleep.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, many people do not get enough magnesium from their diet, and while it is rare to be deficient in magnesium, medical conditions (diabetes, for example) and external factors (like prolonged stress) can upset the body’s magnesium balance.2 Magnesium deficiency can result in anxiety and anxiety related symptoms. B12 vitamin deficiency has also been shown to result in mental health symptoms like depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes.3
My conversation with Kerri and my subsequent research opened my eyes to the inextricable relationship between physical and mental health. If left untreated, anxiety can result in physical illness.
“Anxiety has now been implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions. When people with these disorders have untreated anxiety, the disease itself is more difficult to treat, their physical symptoms often become worse, and in some cases they die sooner.”4
On the flip side, anxiety can be the result of an underlying physical health issue such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, COPD, asthma, chronic pain, irritated bowel syndrome, and even rare tumors that produce certain “fight-or-flight” hormones.
“In some cases, anxiety signs and symptoms are the first indicators of a medical illness. If your doctor suspects your anxiety may have a medical cause, he or she may order tests to look for signs of a problem.”5
Here’s the BIG take-away: If you or someone you love is suffering from anxiety, it would be wise to see a medical doctor to rule out physical illness as the cause. Once you eliminate any physical illness, you can confidently seek psychiatric treatment—cognitive therapy, medication, complementary and alternative practices, or a combination of the three based on your needs.
Watch for the next post in The State of Anxiety series on the relationship between stress and anxiety.