Anxiety can be triggered by almost anything — an unhappy email from your boss, being told you “need to talk” from a romantic partner, or even choosing between brands of pasta sauce at the grocery store.
However, excess anxiety (also known as anxiety disorder) can be triggered by something a bit more complicated than a stressful work situation—your hormones. Many researchers believe anxiety and hormones are a chicken-and-egg situation, where it’s hard to tell whether anxiety causes hormone imbalances or hormone imbalances cause anxiety. It has been studied that during high levels of hormone release (such as puberty, pregnancy, or menopause) more anxiety levels are recorded.
There are four different hormones that can all affect your anxiety levels, stress responses, and overall mood. These are sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone), stress hormones, thyroid hormones, and oxytocin (the “love hormone”).
Otherwise, known as estrogen and testosterone, these hormones have an impact on how much anxiety you do (or don’t) experience. Times, when these hormones are rapidly changing levels, can have a huge impact on your mood —explaining why teenagers experience anxiety while going through puberty and why expectant mothers have anxious periods while they’re pregnant or postpartum.
For the most part, women tend to experience more hormone-driven anxiety than men. One reason behind this is the role estrogen plays in the menstrual cycle where higher levels of serotonin (the happiness hormone) are released in the first two weeks of a cycle. However, if an egg hasn’t been fertilized in the last two weeks, estrogen levels drop dramatically. This helps explain why many women feel anxious physically or mentally while menstruating.
Cortisol and adrenaline are the stress hormones that are released in situations where your body senses you are threatened or in harm’s way. These two hormones are part of the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, used to prepare you to cope with the sensed threat and be on the lookout for dangerous situations.
Stress hormones don’t always get it right, and can also be released in far more mundane situations — like when your tab at a restaurant is much higher than you expected or when in a stressful driving situation. Since you aren’t actually in direct danger or harm’s way in these scenarios, your body is left with excess cortisol and adrenaline, which leaves you with anxiety and anxious feelings.
An increase in stress hormones can also cause your body to release more cortisol and adrenaline in response, meaning you’re left stressed and anxious due to the leftover stress hormones in your system — what can be a vicious cycle.
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat. Though this is a small organ, it has a big impact on your overall mental state and anxiety levels. Underactive thyroids have been linked to depression and fatigue, while overactive thyroids have been shown to cause anxiety, nervousness, and restlessness.
While the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) may be to blame here, it could also have something to do with an autoimmune condition that causes the thyroid to be inflamed. Patients with anxiety disorders have been studied to have an increase in blood flow to the thyroid gland, which could link thyroid abnormalities with anxiety.
Not all hormones are bad, and to prove it, meet oxytocin: also known as the love hormone. This hormone has been studied to have a positive impact on stress levels and may actually reduce anxiety. The brain emits this hormone during happy, high-pleasure moments like during a long hug or while a mother breastfeeds.
Among other emotions, oxytocin modulates anxiety, stress, fear, and aggression — all feelings that people experience when faced with different stimuli. While your brain is emitting high levels of oxytocin, high responses to stress may even be reduced, like when you’re on a date or snuggling with a loved one.
How to Balance Hormones and Reduce Anxiety
Besides medication, there are a number of things that you can do to balance your hormones, so you can care for your anxiety at home.
- Incorporate stress management techniques into your day-to-day life to keep yourself from stressing out or spiraling when anxiety rears its ugly head. Try mindful activities like journaling, reading, yoga, or deep breathing.
- Get enough sleep to feel well-rested and keep your hormones balanced. If you find yourself lying awake for hours, examine your sleep habits to see if you can make an at-home change or if you should see a professional.
- Improve your diet and fill your fridge with fiber-rich, healthy foods to reduce levels of stress and keep you full for longer.
- Move your body, so you can lower cortisol and adrenaline levels, while also releasing endorphins that make you feel happy and satisfied with what you’ve accomplished.
Managing hormonally-induced anxiety can feel like a rollercoaster, but it doesn’t have to. Test your hormone levels, so you can see what anxiety management techniques may work best for you and your specific conditions, whether they’re at home or with a mental health professional. Learn more about hormones and anxiety with help from Everlywell.