Things that can cause anxiety and what you can do about them

Nervousness, panic, fear, sweating, rapid heartbeat: all can be symptoms of anxiety. And in times of true danger, anxiety and its symptoms are totally normal and healthy. But sometimes those feelings go into overdrive at the wrong time, and anxiety winds up interfering with daily life.

Eventually, anxiety may escalate to the point that a person is unable to do their job, perform household duties, or care for themselves or loved ones as they normally would. Knowing what may be causing or worsening the anxiety may help to prevent it from getting to this level.

The triggers of anxiety are different for everyone, but here are some of the more common ones.

Thinking there’s something physically wrong with you

Is this pain in my chest a sign that I'm having a heart attack? Does my skin rash mean I have cancer? Anxiety can often stem from worry that there is something wrong with your body. Everyone has concerns about their health from time to time, but depending on someone's history and personality, physical symptoms can trigger a full-on anxiety disorder if the worrying interferes with daily functioning.

Not getting enough sleep

According to the CDC, adults should get at least seven hours of a good quality sleep per day. Not getting enough of that recommended sleep time is another factor that can worsen anxiety. Over the years, studies have found that regardless of whether or not someone has an anxiety disorder, anxiety levels go up following a night of sleep deprivation.

Stimulants – including coffee

Yes, coffee can make anxiety worse. Some studies show that consuming more than 200 milligrams of caffeine (about the amount in just two cups of coffee) can increase the likelihood of anxiety and panic attacks in people sensitive to it.

The natural effects of caffeine stimulate a host of sensations, such as your heart beating faster, your body heating up, your breathing rate increasing – all things that mimic anxiety. Psychologically, it's difficult for your mind to recognise that this is not anxiety because it feels the same.

Taking certain medications

Some medications themselves are stimulants and so can trigger anxiety in certain patients; these include amphetamines and methylphenidate, both of which are used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. Some antidepressants, such as bupropion and venlafaxine, and some anti-asthma medications can be stimulating for some people.

Having a diet that’s not too healthy

It's no secret that if you haven't been eating well you might not physically feel your best. But a poor diet can impact your mental health as well. A poor diet and the way it makes you feel can make you more sensitive to the impact of anxiety.

Recent research shows that eating a lot of processed carbohydrates can increase the risk of anxiety. The researchers think this might be because of the repeated and rapid changes in blood glucose levels. Recurrent low blood sugar is also associated with mood disorders.

Preparing for and managing these triggers

Try to take care of your important self-care activities before any chaos happens. The idea here is, for all of us, at some point, something chaotic is going to happen. And so an important goal is to think about how can you prepare for the eventual chaos by taking care of yourself now so that when the chaos does happen, you feel more resilient at the base of it.

When something has triggered your anxiety and you're experiencing high emotions because of it, self-care activities alone are unlikely enough to reduce your anxiety. Once that anxiousness kicks in, that's when coping mechanisms like distraction and mindfulness practice come into play. Opening up to others about what you are experiencing can also validate your emotions and help get you through the anxiety that the trigger has initiated.

Identifying and dealing with these triggers sooner rather than later could be helpful in managing the anxiety. But if your anxiety is to a point where you feel it is already out of control, the really good news is there are treatments – both medication and behavioural treatments – for all of the anxiety disorders as well as stressors that might make people anxious.