Author: Angela Lisle, M.A., L.C.P.C.
When anxiety strikes, it may seem like your brain is a computer with a virus that shuts down and just won’t do what you need it to do. Sometimes anxiety causes unpleasant physical sensations in other areas of the body also–increased heart rate, sweating, and nausea, to name a few.
However, just like with your computer, once you figure out those root causes, an update to deal with those known issues can often get you running efficiently again. To help you decide which areas might benefit from an upgrade, Noom assembled a summary of common causes of anxiety, as well as some ways you can work to steer clear of worry-provoking situations when possible.
Your body likely didn’t come with an instruction manual, so it’s important to note at this point that anxiety is actually an expected response when feeling threatened. In effect, your brain is programmed to protect you by launching into “fight or flight” mode, which fills you with adrenaline. It does this so that you can take care of business to the best of your ability, no matter what the threat looks like. Yet, in the modern world, sometimes what feels like a threat does not actually need the adrenaline-fueled response that your brain is coded to provide. Luckily, your brain also comes with numerous ways to reboot if you decide that the threat is not as severe as originally imagined. Knowing what to expect from your brain and your body can be a great first step to managing your anxiety even when you can’t avoid it.
Let’s dig in on what usually causes anxiety, as well as ways to rewire the system to avoid unnecessary anxiety when your brain feels overloaded. In case you weren’t aware, things that cause anxiety can come from both within you and also from causes outside of you. These issues often stem from physical, environmental, and/or psychological triggers.
Physical causes of anxiety
When thinking about what causes anxiety, your mind may not immediately jump to physical factors. In actuality, just like a computer expert can help you check your computer hardware, there are many physical things that can cause anxiety which you may want to consider talking to your doctor about.
For example, side effects of medications, blood sugar issues, and even co-occurring illnesses may be contributors to or causes of anxiety. Perhaps even more surprising, dehydration or intake of foods you may be sensitive or allergic to can also complicate matters. Although some of these issues may not be under your direct control, you and your medical team can work together on a plan to minimize these physical complications.
At the same time, there are plenty of physical domains where you can have a big impact on your mood and health. The most familiar being exercise, sleep, and self care. Just like your computer and software need regular updates, your body also needs regular time to refresh itself and make changes.
On the other hand, when you are feeling anxious and stressed, it can be surprisingly easy to turn to coping mechanisms that may not be as healthy. Think: caffeine, drugs, alcohol, sleep, and even food. When those coping mechanisms are used in a way that is not mindful, they usually exacerbate symptoms of anxiety in the long run rather than improving them, even though they might provide a quick fix in the moment.
Environmental causes of anxiety
Have you ever tried to work on your computer and found you just have too many tabs up on your desktop and too many things going to be efficient? Life can be like that as well, and changing your setup and environment can be prime in avoiding anxiety.
Problem solving can often be key with environmental triggers. When you are feeling calmer, ask yourself what it is about your current situation that is so anxiety provoking and if there is a change that can be made there. For example, if your job is driving you crazy, could you ask for help, change positions, or is it time to look for another career entirely?
In addition, time management can be an environmental cause of anxiety. If you are super busy, bundle some habits together to make more space in your schedule. For instance, if you need to de-stress, take a walk while you listen to an uplifting playlist or inspirational podcast to get in both your exercise and some mood-boosting mental stimulation.
Prioritization can be another invariably important step in reducing anxiety. Take a few minutes to think about what you will care about in a month, a year, or even 5 years from now. Once you know what matters to you and why, it can be easier to let a few things go and close some of those “tabs” for your own mental health.
Psychological causes of anxiety
Unfortunately, sometimes you can make tons of adjustments to your desktop and take spectacular care of the hardware and software, and yet your computer is still just on the fritz. Life can honestly be the same way.
Whether you like it or not, sometimes the world hands you painful experiences–things that can cause grief or even trauma. It’s certainly understandable and quite normal that when life has been crazy hard, you might feel some anxiety. Furthermore, there literally may be NOTHING that you can do to change those things that have happened. When it seems like you have little control, it can be invaluable to stop and assess how you are thinking about your situation. For instance, focusing on the “what ifs” instead of “what is” can be an easy trap to fall into. But when you slow down and utilize mindfulness techniques, you can search for joy wherever you are with a new perspective.
Even though it’s not easy, you can change your script with how you respond to the lemons life may have dealt you. When you find a way to process and accept what you can’t change, you can begin to see life as one big experiment–learning, changing, and growing as you go. If you don’t want to make lemonade with your lemons, make some lemon poppy seed dressing for your salad, or whatever you like or need most!
We acknowledge that, in the heat of the moment, it isn’t always possible to look at different perspectives and process what is happening, especially when those “fight or flight” feelings have kicked in. For those situations, it can help to practice breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to have on hand when you need to ground or center yourself.
In the big picture, only you know what is outside the bounds of “normal” for you. If you feel like your anxiety is something that you can’t gain any traction on using the techniques we have mentioned above, it may be time to reach out to a professional like a therapist or a doctor for some extra assistance. Just like you might need to call in I.T. when your work computer is malfunctioning, it’s totally ok to ask for a little extra help when you are struggling with issues beyond your experience or expertise. That’s what they are there for!