Causes of Anxiety
Anxiety can be caused by a huge range of physical, spiritual, and psychological triggers. Anxiety is simply one way that our mind and body communicate that attention is needed to create balance again. Below are some of the causes of anxiety and suggestions for how to rebalance. I have separated these into two categories, but the truth is there is no clear delineation between physical and psychological causes. One will feed the other. Our mind-body connection is a two-way street.
Physical Causes of Anxiety
There are a variety of nutritional deficiencies that are directly linked to increased anxiety. Some common ones to rule out are B12, B6, zinc, and iron. You can do nutritional testing through a functional medicine clinician.
Sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day, sitting while commuting, and then going home to sit some more while you watch TV is a recipe for anxiety. The effect of not moving regularly throughout the day is stagnation. Stagnation patterns from the Eastern medicine perspective are a cause of a range of emotional symptoms and the root of all disease. We are designed to be in motion. The more frequently you can get your blood flowing, the better you’re going to feel. This doesn’t mean over-exercising. It means more standing and walking and less sitting.
Burn out refers both to the emotional experience of feeling depleted due to intense stress, and the physiological pattern wherein you have dysregulated stress hormones. Chronically elevated or depressed cortisol levels both lead to anxiety. This is the result of a high-demand, high-stress lifestyle over the course of many months. Inadequate sleep, chronic disease or infection, and substance abuse can all contribute to imbalances in your hypo-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is called “adrenal fatigue” and anxiety is a tell-tale symptom.
The cumulative effect of toxins in your body can cause anxiety. Heavy metals, mold, and chemicals like pesticides, insecticides, and plastics all stress the body’s detox pathways. If you’re someone who has genetic mutations which impact your ability to detoxify (many people have some impairment), you are more likely to experience symptoms like anxiety from toxin exposure. These genetic mutations influence methylation, an important process that aids in detox. You can have your methylation pathways tested to identify if this is a cause of your anxiety and pinpoint which supplements can help correct it.
What you eat on a daily basis has a direct and profound impact on your mood. A high-sugar diet, in particular, is a cause of anxiety. Eating a diet high in pesticides, refined flours, sodium, and packaged foods contribute to anxiety. Blood sugar imbalances caused by a high-carb diet will lead to insulin dysregulation. Both high and low blood sugar episodes are marked by feelings of anxiety, restlessness, shakiness, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Notice these are all common physical symptoms of anxiety.
Histamine is a compound produced both within and outside the body. Our body metabolizes histamine that we make and that we intake via air and foods. If our intake is higher than our capacity to metabolize it, we get a histamine reaction. The physical symptoms might be itching, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, racing heart, or diarrhea. The emotional reaction is a feeling of anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety is the only sign of a histamine reaction. You may be reacting to histamine in your diet, home, or the environment outside your home. There are steps you can take to lower your exposure and increase your tolerance.
Imbalanced hormones are a common cause of anxiety. “Hormone” is a broad term. Imbalanced thyroid hormones are the most common type of hormonal imbalance and both hypo- and hyperthyroidism can cause anxiety. Imbalance reproductive hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone can cause anxiety as well. Finally, adrenal hormones such as cortisol, DHEA, and cortisone can lead to anxiety if imbalanced. Hormonal testing such as a DUTCH panel can be hugely helpful in identifying hormonal causes of anxiety. If you experience changes in weight, appetite, or sleep along with your anxiety, rule out thyroid issues by getting a blood test with a functional medicine clinician.
Lack of quality sleep or too few hours of sleep can cause anxiety. In fact, even a couple of nights of poor sleep will lead to an increased chance of feeling anxious throughout the day. Sleep is when the body does a number of necessary and essential detoxification and repair functions. The brain consolidates memories, processes information, and controls the proper release of neurotransmitters and hormones when we are resting. If you’re struggling to sleep well, consider acupuncture or functional medicine.
Digestive issues are a common underlying cause of anxiety. Gut infections due to bacterial or fungal overgrowth are very common. The imbalanced microbiome directly impacts mood. A majority of the body’s neurotransmitters are made in the gut. The gut-brain connection cannot be overstated, and I investigate gut health with every single patient I see for anxiety. There are a number of functional medicine tests that help me identify where your gut health is compromised so we can treat your anxiety from the root.
Psychological Causes of Anxiety
Being Out of Integrity
Being out of integrity causes anxiety. Most healthy people will feel anxiety in response to saying one thing and doing another. This holds true for feeling one way and acting another way or vice versa. Alignment, the idea that what we say, think, and do are congruent, is helpful for a peaceful outlook. Anxiety is often a symptom that we are out of integrity somewhere in our life. It’s a little warning sign to investigate where we may be out of alignment.
Having an internal monologue of doubt and self-criticism is a sure fire way to cause anxiety. Thinking unkind thoughts about yourself is a form of self-aggression with no positive outcome. If you’re not sure if your thoughts are contributing to your anxiety, consider if you’d speak to a dear friend the way you speak to yourself. If the answer is no, invite in some acceptance and compassion for yourself!
Our brains have a negativity bias. This means that negative experiences are given more weight in our memory than positive ones. This is helpful as a survival mechanism because we learn quickly not to poke sleeping bears. It is not so helpful in normal life as it can lead to hypervigilance and anxiety. It’s easy to gloss over those successes and joyful moments. In order to counter the negativity bias, it’s essential that you highlight positivity in your life in an intentional and consistent way. Gratitude journaling before bed is a great way to do this.
Creative stagnation can manifest as anxiety. We are creative beings, all of us. Creativity has endless forms. It can be expressed as the way we solve problems, choose our clothing, design our living space, make love, or write emails. All the fine arts (painting, ceramics, photography, music) count too! Without regular outlets for creative energy, we often begin to feel anxious. Finding ways to express yourself creativity may lessen your anxiety. If you don’t know how you express yourself creatively, think back to what you most enjoyed doing as a child and start there.
Needs Not Being Met
We all have basic needs for connection: touch, attention, belonging. If we aren’t getting one or all of these met, anxiety will arise. The simple act of cuddling can work wonders for anxiety, as it produces the calming chemical oxytocin. Touch is not a luxury, it is a requirement for good health. We are tribal beings and do best in a tight-knit community. If your needs aren’t being met by your romantic partner, family members, or friends, consider how you could get them met. Perhaps paying for massages, attending women’s or men’s groups, meet-ups, dance classes, etc.
As just discussed, we are wired for human connection. It is a basic need as surely as food and water. Feeling lonely, unsupported, or lacking in social connections will lead to psychological (and physical) stress. Anxiety is one response to loneliness. While human connection can be a trigger as well for those with social anxiety, close bonds with other people help calm our nervous system. More on the impact of loneliness on our health here.
What is the Antidote to Anxiety?
First, it’s important to rule out any health conditions such as those mentioned above. Once functional medicine testing has been done, I recommend addressing the psychological piece. Such practices as cultivating gratitude, presence, compassion, and acceptance are powerful and transformative for our mental health. Another useful technique is reframing. Reframing helps us look at our circumstances from a different perspective; one that is empowering and reduces anxiety. Working with a therapist or health coach is a great way to get help with reframing.
Curious which foods help with anxiety? Download the free PDF of the Top 8 anxiety-reducing foods here