Learn what causes anxiety and what strategies can reduce it.
Anxiety manifests differently for different people. Physical symptoms include sweaty palms, shaking or trembling, fast heartbeat, indigestion, headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, and many more (Konkel, 2021). These symptoms can be linked to your body’s physiological arousal as it prepares to ward off a threat. (If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, especially for the first time, it’s worth seeing a doctor to rule out other causes.)
Anxiety can also manifest cognitively with symptoms such as worries, racing thoughts, rumination, and loss of concentration. Anxiety might also appear as seemingly endless trains of “what if?” questions.
Anxiety is linked to our fight-or-flight response and can help us prepare for real threats. For example, if you feel anxious before an important exam, you might study more and earn a higher score than you otherwise would have. If anxiety becomes chronic and disruptive, however, it can be part of a psychological disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
What Can Lead To Anxiousness?
Anxiety can be a normal response to life events (Konkel, 2021). If uncertainty and chaos are major features of your environment (e.g., an abusive home or a competitive career field with little job security), it makes sense to feel anxious. Even after moving to a safer environment, this anxiety may persist. Anxiety can also be a normal response to short-term stressors like an upcoming exam, a first date, or a dental appointment.
Anxiety can also have physiological causes. For example, sleep deprivation or excessive caffeine intake can cause or exacerbate anxiety. It’s also possible that some people inherit a predisposition to experience more frequent or intense anxiety than average. Even if you’re especially anxiety-prone or have a family history of anxiety, there’s nothing wrong with you. But you might find strategies to manage your anxiety helpful.
Feeling Anxious When Waking Up
Morning increases in cortisol release (the cortisol awakening response) may contribute to anxiety when waking up. The cortisol awakening response might prepare your body for the stress and challenges of the day. If you’re prone to anxiety, you may experience a weaker cortisol awakening response (Walker et al., 2011). This weaker response could contribute to anxiety, be caused by it, both, or neither. Further, research has produced mixed findings as to the relationship between CAR and psychological disorders.
If you experience morning anxiety, you can try tracking its patterns to see if there’s a trigger in your life. For example, do you wake up feeling anxious on days when you’re planning to see a certain friend? Do you feel more anxious on workdays than on days off? On days when you sleep in? On rainy days?
Feeling Anxious at Night
If you’re stressed, but work, family time, hobbies, or other activities keep you occupied during the day, you might notice an uptick in anxiety and worries at bedtime (which, for most of us, is at night). Once you’re relaxing and no one is asking anything of you, your mind is free to wander. If you think problem-solving could be helpful, you can try daily journaling. You can also try diverting your mind with relaxing but engrossing activities, such as reading a book, doing a crossword puzzle, or listening to music.
Feeling Anxious in a Relationship
In any relationship, you’ll likely feel anxious at least occasionally. If you have an anxious or disorganized attachment style, anxiety will probably crop up more frequently than if you have a secure or avoidant attachment style. Fortunately, it is possible to move toward greater attachment security (particularly with the help of a therapist). You can learn about attachment styles through many books, websites, and podcasts.
How to Stop Feeling So Anxious
In some cases, anxiety can be a normal and even appropriate response to life events. Occasional situational anxiety, such as jitters before a final exam, might push you to perform better (Cheng & McCarthy, 2018). If you experience only occasional anxiety that seems to benefit you, you might not need to stop the anxiety–instead, consider harnessing it to get closer to your goals.
If you’re in an abusive, chaotic, and/or unpredictable environment, such as a particularly intense job, your best bet may be to leave for a better environment. Of course, leaving is not always (immediately) possible and may not be your preferred solution. If you’re a member of a marginalized group, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, classist, ableist, or otherwise discriminatory environments may (understandably) contribute to your anxiety, but it’s probably not feasible to move beyond the reach of systemic oppression. Pockets of safety (like a good support group) might be the best remedy.
When anxiety becomes a problem, self-help, seeking professional help, or a mix of both approaches might resolve or reduce your symptoms. Numerous workbooks, articles, podcasts, online communities, etcetera exist to support people with anxiety. If you prefer to work with a professional (or if self-help approaches don’t work well for you), many therapists specialize in anxiety treatment. You can also talk with a psychiatrist or general practitioner about medication options.
Although anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, and it can motivate us to prepare and perform well, it can also cause pain and hold us back. Anxiety can be associated with any number of potential biological, psychological, and social causes: Examples include sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, work-related stressors, relationship tension, trauma, and certain times of day. Anxiety can rise to the level of a disorder if it causes you distress and interferes with your daily life (e.g., it causes problems for your work, keeps you from making friends, or gets in the way of your romantic relationship). If you think you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, a therapist or other mental health professional may be able to help you with therapy and/or medication. Self-help approaches such as lifestyle changes, workbooks, and support group participation may also help keep anxiety in check.
Cheng, B. H., & McCarthy, J. M. (2018). Understanding the dark and bright sides of anxiety: A theory of workplace anxiety. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5), 537.
Konkel, L. (2021, March 26). What is anxiety? Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Everyday Health.