How to Identify the Real Cause of Your Anxiety (2023)

Understanding where your anxiety comes from may help you find effective ways to manage it long term.

Symptoms of anxiety often have a root cause, sometimes beyond our awareness. Beneath the shakiness, sweaty palms, and queasy stomach may reside a reason you’re hurting, afraid, uncertain, or ashamed.

This root cause of anxiety may be unique to you and your circumstances.

You may get anxious about a final exam because you think you’re incapable. You might feel terrified to ask for help because you grew up in a family that equated support-seeking with weakness. Your social anxiety could stem from a fear that you’re not good enough.

Anxiety is a messenger, says Linda Ugelow, a speaking confidence coach from Bedford, Massachusetts, and author of the book “Delight in the Limelight: Overcome Your Fear of Being Seen and Realize Your Dreams.”

Anxiety may alert you of unresolved conflicts or traumas. In some instances, it may also be a sign of an underlying medical condition that requires professional support.

In any case, symptoms of anxiety can be managed and you can find a way to live more calmly and confidently.

When you experience symptoms of anxiety — feeling overwhelmed and jittery, unable to focus or falling asleep — you might direct all your attention to the physical signs and sensations.

This is natural. After all, these symptoms can be too loud to ignore.

As you instinctively focus on easing your apprehension, you may spend much less time — if any — on naming what’s occurring beneath the surface.

But using anxiety-relieving coping strategies without understanding why you’re anxious can become a Band-Aid or quick fix, says Jennifer Weber, PsyD, a psychologist in Lake Success, New York, and director of behavioral health for PM Pediatrics Behavioral Health.

As a result, you could miss out on the opportunity to resolve the underlying cause.

Working on learning the original root of your anxiety may consist of two processes:

  1. identifying what you’re really afraid of
  2. understanding why you’re really afraid of it

This may help you feel empowered, move forward, and make progress.

For example, when you realize your Sunday scaries are linked to your fear of not doing a great job at work, you refocus on showing up on time and completing your projects, says Lynn R. Zakeri, LCSW, a therapist based in Skokie, Illinois.

And maybe you further explore your feelings of inadequacy and realize they’re connected to specific past experiences.

This understanding may also help you be gentler with yourself and work more efficiently, realizing you don’t have to earn your self-worth.

Ultimately, identifying anxiety’s origins could help you identify and work on hurtful patterns to build a more fulfilling, freer life.

Exploring the root cause of your anxiety and managing your symptoms may be better done with the support of a mental health professional. It’s highly advisable that you reach out to one that specializes in anxiety disorders, especially if doing these exercises.

Getting to the root of your anxiety starts with managing your current anxiety symptoms so you can think clearly and self-reflect, says Natasha Bryant, a licensed clinical social worker and coach in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

To soothe your anxiety, try placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, paying attention to when each expands as you breathe in and out, suggests Bryant.

Then, you can grab a notebook and use these ideas to dig deeper into the reasons behind your anxiety symptoms.

Keeping a kind mindset

As you start exploring your anxiety, remember to listen to yourself as you’d listen to a friend: with compassion, curiosity, and patience.

Consider examining your anxiety with the intention to understand. It might even help to see your anxiety as a separate entity or a younger you.

Either way, try to be gentle with yourself and proceed with care.

Getting acquainted with your anxiety

To begin your self-exploration, it may be helpful to first understand how your anxiety functions.

In your journal, Bryant suggests taking note of:

  • when your anxiety happens
  • where it happens
  • what’s happening at that time physically and mentally
  • how long the anxiety symptoms last

Listing your fears

“When we can really articulate what we are afraid of […] it becomes a real monster to tackle, not simply this idea of monsters,” says Zakeri.

She suggests making a list that starts with the phrase “I am scared of.” As you’re writing, try to avoid judging what comes out, giving yourself full permission to express your fears — even if they sound silly, unfounded, or embarrassing.

Try to write them all, anyway.

Tamar Chansky, PhD, a licensed psychologist in New York City, also suggests asking yourself these questions about each of the listed fears:

  • When do I first remember having this fear?
  • What was going on at that time?

Diving into the fear rabbit hole

Another way to isolate your fear is to name the anxiety-provoking situation and keep asking the question, “And then what will happen?” says Chansky, author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety” and “Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.”

To stop fixating on your fears, try to fact-check the specific consequences you’re afraid of. Is there evidence supporting this will in fact happen?

After that, consider creating “courage challenges” by doing some of the things you fear, says Chansky. This is an exercise from exposure therapy, an effective approach for treating anxiety.

Pinpointing a pattern

To help you connect the dots and find patterns when you’re feeling anxious, try to explore the below questions, suggested by Rachel Dubrow, a clinical social worker in Northfield, Illinois:

  • How long has it been since I felt differently than I do now?
  • What has changed in my life over the last 3 months, 6 months, or year?
  • Are there other times in my life, past or present, where I’ve felt the same way but the situation was different?
  • If yes, what are they? Is there a common thread between situations?

Exploring your home life

Because anxiety can run deep, it may be helpful to reflect on your childhood.

Keep in mind, Ugelow notes, this exploration isn’t about blaming your family or yourself. Instead, you can acknowledge that your loved ones did the best they could with the resources they had and might’ve hurt you with their words and actions.

Ugelow suggests exploring these questions, focusing on your feelings and the details of your memories:

  • What were my family relationships like?
  • Were there any times that I felt dismissed, shamed, ridiculed, punished, or afraid?
  • Did I ever feel like I wasn’t good enough or I was a burden?
  • Did I feel like it wasn’t OK to express myself?

Honing in on your habits

The root of anxiety isn’t always psychological. Your habits may spark or provoke your anxiety, too.

Some research suggests that not sleeping enough may increase daytime anxiety, for example. Alcohol use can also worsen anxiety in some people.

To explore your habits, consider asking yourself:

  • Has my anxiety or its intensity increased lately?
  • Have my habits changed?
  • How’s my sleep?
  • Have I been drinking more, or feeling progressively worse after drinking?

Getting a checkup

Another often overlooked cause of anxiety is underlying physiological processes. Consider having a checkup and lab work to rule out this cause.

Georgetown University psychiatrist Dr. Robert Hedaya created the mnemonic THINC MED to find physical problems that may be causing anxiety symptoms:

  • T (tumors). In addition to anxiety, brain tumors, for instance, can cause hallucinations and personality changes.
  • H (hormones). An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) and underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) can cause anxiety, along with conditions that affect the parathyroid and adrenal glands.
  • I (infectious diseases). Lyme disease, untreated strep infections, and a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome may lead to anxiety.
  • N (nutrition). Deficiencies of certain vitamins and nutrients, such as B12, may cause or worsen anxiety.
  • C (central nervous system). A traumatic brain injury, even mild cases, can produce anxiety, as well as neurological conditions.
  • M (miscellaneous). Anxiety-causing conditions can include chronic headaches, sleep disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, and fibromyalgia.
  • E (electrolyte abnormalities and environmental toxins). Organophosphate insecticides and certain medical therapies that disrupt electrolytes can lead to anxiety.
  • D (drugs). Besides recreational drugs, certain over-the-counter and prescription medications, herbal supplements, excess caffeine, and food additives can cause anxiety.

When living with anxiety, you may naturally just want the symptoms to go away. But using relaxation techniques without getting to the root of anxiety may lead you to miss the chance of learning what’s really going on — and finding long-term helpful solutions.

Recurring anxiety may be a sign of unresolved problems. Focusing on pinning down what you’re really afraid of and exploring why you’re afraid of it can help.

Remember that anxiety is manageable and doesn’t have to be permanent in your life — whether you pinpoint the specific cause of it or not. Reaching out for professional support is highly advisable.

These resources may help you find support:


How can I find out what is causing my anxiety? ›

Tips for identifying triggers
  1. Start a journal: Write down when your anxiety is noticeable, and record what you think might have led to the trigger. ...
  2. Work with a therapist: Some anxiety triggers can be difficult to identify, but a mental health specialist has training that can help you.

What if you don't know whats causing your anxiety? ›

Anxiety can be caused by a variety of things: stress, genetics, brain chemistry, traumatic events, or environmental factors. Symptoms can be reduced with anti-anxiety medication. But even with medication, people may still experience some anxiety or even panic attacks.

How to tell the difference between anxiety and a real problem? ›

Generally, most doctors can easily tell the difference between anxiety and/or stress caused sensations and symptoms from those caused by other medical reasons - because other medical conditions/emergencies have sensations and symptoms that are unlike those caused by anxiety alone.

Is your anxiety real or made up? ›

Anxiety disorders are real, serious medical conditions - just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States.

Do I have a mental illness or am I overreacting? ›

It's important to note that only a mental health professional can diagnose a mental health condition. Therefore, the only way to receive a definite answer to the question, “Do I have a mental illness, or am I overreacting?”, is to get in touch with a professional at an accredited treatment center.

What does anxiety feel like in your head? ›

Anxiety causes a heavy head feeling because of tension headaches common in people living with the disorder. Most people describe these headaches as feeling like a tight band wrapped around their heads. A tightening of the scalp and neck muscles also causes an anxiety headache.

What does untreated anxiety look like? ›

Chronic, untreated anxiety is linked to panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, brain fog and other serious issues.

What to do when my anxiety is out of control? ›

Stress management techniques, such as exercise, mindfulness, and meditation, also can reduce anxiety symptoms and enhance the effects of psychotherapy. You can learn more about how these techniques benefit your treatment by talking with a health care provider.

What is commonly misdiagnosed as anxiety? ›

Health issues that may seem like anxiety can be cardiac, endocrine, GI-related, inflammatory, metabolic, neurological, and respiratory. Within those groups, conditions that might first present like anxiety include irritable bowel syndrome, cardiac arrhythmias, hypoglycemia, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Can something else be mistaken for anxiety? ›

There are several symptoms that could be mistaken for anxiety. If your blood sugar drops too low, it can cause you to sweat and feel shaky, which may be confused with anxiety. If your thyroid gland is overactive, you can sweat excessively and feel restless and nervous.

Am I self diagnosing anxiety? ›

Only a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose a mental health disorder like social anxiety. While you cannot self-diagnose, you can take steps to figure out if your symptoms are the result of normal shyness or if they could be something more.

Is anxiety all in your head? ›

People with anxiety disorders often feel that their concerns are not taken seriously or that "it's all in their heads." This minimizes their pain and discomfort, and leaves psychiatric and associated medical conditions unaddressed. It should be noted that the statement "it's all in your head" is not entirely wrong.

Can you fake it till you make it with anxiety? ›

As it so happens, "fake it 'til you make it" can help anxiety disorders. The concept comes from the therapy technique called acting as if. Developed by psychotherapist Alfred Adler, acting as if encourages people to act as if their obstacles, including anxiety disorders, are already gone.

What is an example of reality anxiety? ›

Reality anxiety is fear of real-world events. The cause of this anxiety is usually easily identified. For example, a person might fear receiving a dog bite when they are near a menacing dog. The most common way of reducing this anxiety is to avoid the threatening object.

What are 3 signs of poor mental health? ›

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt.
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows.
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities.
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping.
Dec 13, 2022

What does high functioning mental illness look like? ›

High-functioning mental illness means being able to go about most days as if there isn't a war going on in your head, or panic ricocheting through your body. High-functioning mental illness, like any mental illness, is exhausting, overwhelming and hard to deal with.

What are 2 warning signs of a mental illness? ›

Adults and Adolescents
  • Excessive worrying or fear.
  • Feeling excessively sad or low.
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning.
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria.
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger.
  • Avoiding friends and social activities.

Can brain scans show anxiety? ›

Brain imaging can reveal unsuspected causes of your anxiety. Anxiety can be caused by many things, such as neurohormonal imbalances, post-traumatic stress syndrome, or head injuries. Brain scans can offer clues to potential root causes of your anxiety, which can help find the most effective treatment plan.

What part of head hurts with anxiety? ›

Anxiety headaches, sometimes referred to as tension headaches, may occur in many different places, including: The front, sides, tops, and even back of the head. The back of the neck. The shoulder muscles in between shoulder blades.

Is anxiety a chemical imbalance? ›

But researchers don't know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. They suspect a combination of factors plays a role: Chemical imbalance: Severe or long-lasting stress can change the chemical balance that controls your mood. Experiencing a lot of stress over a long period can lead to an anxiety disorder.

Does anxiety get worse with age? ›

Does anxiety get worse with age? Anxiety disorders don't necessarily get worse with age, but the number of people suffering from anxiety changes across the lifespan. Anxiety becomes more common with older age and is most common among middle-aged adults.

How do you break an anxiety cycle? ›

One important step in reversing the anxiety cycle is gradually confronting feared situations. If you do this, it will lead to an improved sense of confidence, which will help reduce your anxiety and allow you to go into situations that are important to you.

What is high functioning anxiety? ›

“The term high functioning anxiety describes an individual who, despite feeling anxious, seems able to effectively manage the demands of day-to-day life,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

Why did I develop anxiety all of a sudden? ›

A big event or a buildup of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety — for example, a death in the family, work stress or ongoing worry about finances. Personality. People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.

When is anxiety serious? ›

Severe anxiety is when the body's natural responses to anticipated stress exceed healthy levels and interrupt your ability to function and carry out typical day-to-day tasks. The immediate physical symptoms can include a racing heart, changes in breathing, or a headache.

Why do doctors always say its anxiety? ›

Or, doctors might tell you “it's just anxiety” because they can't find another cause for your symptoms (this is especially common for women with invisible or difficult to diagnose illnesses), even if you're not struggling with your mental health and your gut says your symptoms aren't related to any anxiety you are ...

What personality type is prone to anxiety? ›

Research has indicated that individuals with high emotional reactivity (high neuroticism) and introverted tendencies (low extroversion) are more likely to experience anxiety than other personality types [101].

How do I stop Googling my symptoms? ›

Use a distraction. Another technique to keep you from self-diagnosing is distraction. When you feel like doing some Googling distract yourself by doing something else — going for a run, calling up a friend, watching some funny videos, whatever will get you out of your head.

Can you give yourself symptoms from anxiety? ›

Symptoms produced by anxiety — which can include muscle pain, chest pain, heart rate changes, headaches, and dizziness, among others — can heighten existing anxiety about one's health.

Can your mind stop anxiety? ›

A brief mental vacation can break the cycle of anxious thoughts.” To try this on your own, set a timer for a few minutes, close your eyes, and picture yourself somewhere you feel peaceful or happy. “Just letting your mind wander can work well if your anxiety comes from feeling controlled or managed,” Henderson says.

Why does my brain think things I don't want it to? ›

Intrusive thoughts are often triggered by stress or anxiety. They may also be a short-term problem brought on by biological factors, such as hormone shifts. For example, a woman might experience an uptick in intrusive thoughts after the birth of a child.

Can thinking cause anxiety? ›

Plus, whether you're fixating on the past or catastrophizing about the future, thought patterns that are more destructive than constructive can take a toll on both your mental health and physical health. "Studies show that ruminating on stressful events can, over time, lead to anxiety and depression," warns Dr. Fowler.

What is the root cause of health anxiety? ›

The exact cause of health anxiety is not known. While there is some evidence that health anxiety, like all anxiety disorders, may in part be an inherited or biologically based problem, it is generally accepted that several other important factors can increase the likelihood of you developing this problem.

What 3 things should you stay away from to escape anxiety? ›

3 Things That Make Anxiety Worse: Avoiding, Numbing, Criticizing.

Can your mind create symptoms? ›

Yes when your physical symptoms are caused or worsened by your mental state it is called as psychosomatism. People with mental illnesses can experience a range of physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, pain, headaches, insomnia, and feelings of restlessness.

What to do when doctors can't diagnose you? ›

What should I do if I can't get a diagnosis? If you think you have an underlying disease that hasn't been diagnosed, you can ask your primary care provider for a referral to a specialist. And if you or your doctor suspect the disease could be genetic, you can always make an appointment at a medical genetics clinic.

Can health anxiety cause real symptoms? ›

It Gets Tricky. Symptoms of anxiety produce very real physical symptoms: Dizziness, stomachaches, rapid heartbeat, tingling in the hands and feet, muscle tension, jitteriness, chest pressure, and the list goes on. These symptoms add fuel to the fire.

What drinks calm anxiety? ›

Matcha and green tea

Both have L-theanine with calming properties. Green tea is often in the form of crushed leaves and is steeped like traditional tea. Matcha is the entire tea leaf ground into a fine powder. It has a rich, buttery flavor when mixed as a drink.

Which vitamins help with anxiety? ›

Vitamins B9 and B12 are both thought to treat symptoms of anxiety. Folic acid has many uses in the body, and B9 deficiency has been linked to higher levels of anxiety and depression. When taken in conjunction with B12, these B super-vitamins help metabolize serotonin, which is important for mood regulation.

What foods aggravate anxiety? ›

Foods (and drinks) that are stress- and anxiety-provoking
  • Alcohol.
  • Caffeine.
  • Sugary drinks and foods.
  • Processed foods, such as chips, cookies, frozen foods and ready-made meals.
  • Foods high in trans fats and excessive saturated fats, such as fried foods, red meat, full-fat dairy, butter and baked goods.
Sep 21, 2021


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