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What can untreated anxiety lead to?

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. However, for some people, anxiety becomes excessive, persistent, and disruptive to daily life. This is known as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States, affecting over 40 million adults each year. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to a number of complications.

Physical health complications

Untreated anxiety can take a major toll on physical health in a variety of ways:

Cardiovascular effects

Chronic anxiety stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones like cortisol. Over time, this puts strain on the cardiovascular system and can raise the risk for heart attack, stroke, and heart disease. Studies show that people with anxiety disorders have a 25-30% increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Immune system dysfunction

Anxiety can disrupt the balanced functioning of the immune system. Stress hormones released during anxiety can over-stimulate the immune system and cause inflammation. Alternatively, persistent anxiety may weaken immune function and make people more susceptible to infections. This may help explain why anxiety disorder patients have high rates of respiratory infections, cold sores, and genital herpes.

Gastrointestinal problems

The gut has a strong connection to mental health and stress. In people with anxiety, digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and indigestion are very common. Anxiety exacerbates gastrointestinal symptoms by increasing stomach acid, altering gut bacteria, and hypersensitizing nerves in the digestive tract.

Chronic pain conditions

Studies indicate that anxiety often co-occurs with chronic pain problems like tension headaches, back pain, and neuropathy. Anxiety can heighten pain perception and make symptoms feel more intense. The stress of chronic anxiety may also cause muscle tension that leads to pain over time.

Sleep disturbances

Many people with clinical anxiety struggle to get restful sleep. Stress hormones like cortisol disrupt normal sleep cycles. Anxious thoughts and worries at night can also make it difficult to fall asleep. Untreated sleep problems like insomnia tend to worsen anxiety, creating a vicious cycle. Chronic sleep deprivation takes a toll on both physical and mental health.

Substance abuse

Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate symptoms of anxiety. Over 1 in 5 people with an anxiety disorder also suffer from a substance use disorder. Drinking and drug use provides temporary relief but ultimately exacerbates anxiety as substances wear off. It also leads to health risks like organ damage, addiction, and overdose.

Mental health complications

In addition to physical health problems, untreated anxiety disorders frequently lead to other mental health issues:


There is significant overlap between anxiety and clinical depression. Nearly 50% of people diagnosed with depression are also found to have an anxiety disorder. Chronic anxiety wears people down emotionally and mentally, putting them at higher risk for depression. Symptoms like low mood, lack of energy, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in activities can develop over time.

Other anxiety disorders

Having one diagnosed anxiety disorder makes it more likely that someone will eventually develop another type of anxiety disorder. For example, about 75% of people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) will also be diagnosed with another anxiety disorder during their lifetime. The cumulative stress of anxiety appears to worsen overall susceptibility.

Eating disorders

Studies indicate that anxiety disorders co-occur in anywhere from 23% to 60% of people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. The intense fear, worry, and desire for control associated with anxiety can manifest through disordered eating patterns.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD causes intrusive memories, flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, and heightened anxiety following traumatic events. Research shows that pre-existing anxiety disorder diagnosis raises the risk for eventually developing PTSD after trauma exposure.

Panic disorder

Panic attacks involve sudden episodes of intense physical anxiety symptoms like heart palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath. People with recurring panic attacks may develop panic disorder, fearing and avoiding situations where attacks could happen. Untreated anxiety often progresses to panic disorder over time.


Agoraphobia involves fear and avoidance of situations where escape would be difficult or help unavailable. It often stems from panic disorder. People with agoraphobia may refuse to leave home, go to public spaces, or use public transportation out of anxiety regarding panic attacks or embarrassment.

Suicide risk

The combination of anxiety’s effects on mental health and physical health significantly raises the risk of suicide. According to the American Association of Suicidology, anxiety disorders increase suicide risk nearly five-fold compared to the general public. Hopelessness, depression, substance abuse, and social isolation brought on by untreated anxiety all contribute to suicidal behaviors.

Getting effective professional treatment is critical for reducing suicide risk and improving quality of life. Cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, support groups and voluntary hospitalization all provide proven benefits. With proper long-term management, the mental and physical health consequences of anxiety can be avoided.

Social consequences

Without treatment, anxiety disorders lead to numerous disruptions in social life and relationships:

Work or school impairment

Difficulty concentrating, fatigue, worries about performance, avoidance behaviors, and constant anxiety symptoms impair the ability to succeed at work or school. Up to 30% of people with anxiety disorders end up leaving work or school because of anxiety.

Strained relationships

Anxiety makes people withdraw from social situations and interactions. Relationship anxiety also causes behaviors that push partners, friends and family members away. These issues strain relationships over time, leading to isolation.

Financial difficulties

Unemployment, medical costs, mental health treatment expenses, and substance abuse all take a major financial toll. One study found that over 30% of people with untreated anxiety reported significant financial difficulties.

Substance abuse

Reliance on drugs or alcohol to ease anxiety symptoms leads to impaired judgement and dangerous behavior. It can damage relationships and derail careers. Substance abuse problems often become entangled with legal consequences as well.

Early mortality

The cumulative effects of untreated anxiety raise the risk of dying prematurely. According to studies, people with anxiety disorders have a risk of premature death that is up to 21% higher than the general population. Suicide, cardiovascular disease, infections, substance abuse, and accidents all contribute to decreased lifespan.

Cognitive Effects

Chronic anxiety disorder symptoms like constant worrying, panic attacks, and hypervigilance can take a toll on cognitive abilities:


Lab tests show that people with anxiety disorders display impairments in working memory. Anxiety appears to decrease the brain’s ability to hold and manipulate information over short periods of time.


Focus and attention are commonly impaired in anxiety disorders. People describe their mind going “blank” due to stress, or an inability to absorb information. Concentration difficulties get worse in stressful situations.


Excessive worrying leads to difficulty making choices and increased hesitation. MRI scans show decreased activation in decision-making centers of the brain in people with anxiety. They may obsess endlessly over small choices.


While some anxiety may initially increase creativity, excessive anxiety often causes creative blocks. Chronic stress limits the brain’s ability to think flexibly and form novel connections between ideas.


People with anxiety disorders often experience a 5-10 point drop in IQ when tested during periods of severe symptoms. This appears temporary rather than permanent, but can significantly impact functioning when anxiety is high.

Academic performance

Students with untreated anxiety are at higher risk for reduced grades, failing classes, and dropping out of school. Testing anxiety, poor concentration, low motivation, fatigue, and avoiding school all contribute.


In summary, the physical and mental health consequences of leaving anxiety disorders untreated can be far-reaching. From increased risk of heart disease and infections to depression, suicide, and cognitive decline, anxiety takes a major toll over time when left unmanaged. Prioritizing early intervention and consistent treatment is crucial for preventing complications, improving prognosis, and saving lives. With proper care and management, people with anxiety can still live healthy, socially engaged lives.