How Anxiety Affects Health and Longevity

stressed businessman touching his face

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A flat tire waylays your carefully-timed departure for a family road trip. Your laptop swallows hours of work with the deadline right around the corner. An innocent mistake in your math causes your bank account balance to dip down into negative numbers.

Everyday glitches like these are impossible to avoid: We all have bad days and we all have very, very bad days. Sometimes we have entire weeks or months that are truly awful. But most of the time, the impact on our daily life is temporary. The tire gets fixed, the work shows up miraculously when we restart the computer, we're able to transfer enough from savings to avoid an overdraft fee and all is well.

However, life's curveballs can have a significant effect on long-term health and well-being, depending on how we deal with them. Research shows that overreacting, constantly worrying, and living in a state of perpetual anxiety can reduce life expectancy. If this describes your typical response to everyday setbacks and snafus, it may pay in the very, very long run to learn ways to lighten up and lower stress.

Can You Worry Yourself to Death?

Many studies have found a link between anxiety-prone personality and shortened lifespan. The tendency to always react to frustration, loss, or threat with negative emotions is referred to as neuroticism by researchers who have found this trait to be widespread and worrisome.

A 2009 article published in American Psychology stated that "there is growing evidence that neuroticism is a psychological trait of profound public health significance. Neuroticism is a robust correlate and predictor of many different mental and physical disorders, comorbidity among them."

For instance, for a study published in 2008, researchers at Purdue University followed 1,600 men, ages 43 to 91, for 12 years to examine how those with neurotic personalities fared over time. At the end of the study, only 50 percent of the men with high or increasing neuroticism were alive compared to 75 percent to 85 percent of the other group.

The Effects of Stress on Lifespan

So far, there are no clear-cut explanations for why people with neurotic personalities tend to have lower life expectancies than those who are better able to deal with life's knocks.

There's some evidence that neuroticism is related to ​high levels of cortisol, a hormone that's secreted when someone is feeling threatened or stressed. Too much cortisol has been shown to lower the immune system and affect heart health.

Another factor in the relationship between neuroticism and lower lifespan may be that people who are constantly anxious, stressed, and depressed tend to engage in unhealthy habits. They're more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and other drugs, and have unprotected sex, any and all of which can lead to life-shortening conditions or accidents, such as an overdose or car wreck.

Tips for Managing Stress to Extend Longevity

Regardless of whether you have what a doctor might diagnose as a neurotic personality, how you deal with difficulty in your day-to-day life can impact your overall health and well-being. It makes sense, then, to do all you can to lower your stress levels and learn how ways to cope with unexpected frustration and inconvenience.

A great place to start is by making an activity that's known to stave off stress a part of your daily routines such as yoga or meditation. Other simple stress management techniques include letting your feelings out on paper by jotting them into a journal; listening to music; and getting regular physical activity.

It's also a good idea to have some calming tactics on hand to use when you feel anxiety or anger mounting in response to a specific situation.

Breathing exercises can help, for example, as can progressive muscle relaxation or a simple three-minute meditation to help you change your perspective. And if all else fails: Walk it off. Go outside and take a brisk stroll. The change of scenery may be all it takes to help you get a grip and deal with whatever situation you're in without short-circuiting your ability to cope and potentially shortening your life.

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Article Sources

  • Daniel K. Mroczek, Purdue University, and Avron Spiro III. Personality Change Influences Mortality in Older Men. Psychological Science. May 2008. Volume 19, Number 5.

  • Lahey, Benjamin B. Public Health Significance of Neuroticism. Am Psychol. May 2009 May-June; 64(4): 241-256.

  • Smith TW, MacKenzie J. Personality and Risk of Physical Illness. Annu Rev Clini Psychol. 2006; 2: 435-467.