12 Medical Conditions That Could Cause or Trigger Anxiety
Everyone gets anxious from time to time. If you're constantly worried or on edge, you may have an anxiety disorder. However, other conditions can cause or exacerbate anxiety too.
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What are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are mental health conditions characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear. While most people experience these emotions at some point in their lives, people with anxiety disorders have feelings that are so persistent or strong that they interfere with the person’s daily activities, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The disorders impact about 40 million adult Americans; anxiety-related issues are the most prevalent mental illness in the United States. They tend to start in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, and they’re more common in women than in men. Some other medical conditions and health issues are linked with anxiety as well as anxiety disorders—these conditions may mimic anxiety symptoms, cause anxiety, or put people at a higher risk for anxiety disorders. (Be aware of the silent signs you might have high-functioning anxiety.)
An overactive thyroid—known as hyperthyroidism—raises your metabolic rate, which can lead to symptoms like a rapid heart rate and weight loss, reports the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). In addition, a person with hyperthyroidism can experience symptoms like anxiety, shaky hands, nervousness, and may be more likely to experience what feels like a panic attack. (Here are 10 signs you’re having a panic attack.) Your doctor can diagnose the condition with a blood test, and then advise you on the best course of treatment.
Cardiac symptoms like angina—chest pain due to inadequate oxygen flow to the hear—and arrhythmia, which is an abnormal heartbeat, can trigger anxiety symptoms, says Randi E. McCabe, PhD, a clinical psychologist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton in Canada and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry of Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University in Canada. Be sure to see a doctor right away if you have shortness of breath or excessive fatigue along with heart pain, Dr. McCabe warns, though don’t assume the worst. There are a few different chest pains you might mistake for a heart attack. (Find out if anxiety can cause high blood pressure.)
Lack of sleep
While insomnia itself can be stressful, poor sleep can increase your risk of anxiety: A 2018 study in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology found that sleep deprivation increases depression and general distress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), sleep deprivation and chronic insomnia can exacerbate an anxiety-related disorder, and vice versa. Find out all the ways sleep can impact your health.
High or low blood sugar can set you up for anxiety, says Dr. McCabe. In fact, people with diabetes are 20 percent more likely to have anxiety at some point in their life in comparison to people without diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also notes that low blood sugar can feel like anxiety and the opposite is true, too. Note that high or low blood sugar could be associated with distress or anxiety even in people without diabetes.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Approximately one in five adults in the United States has IBS, according to the ADAA, and they point out that the colon is, in part, controlled by the nervous system—which of course is uniquely sensitive to stress. Anxiety may also creep in when people fear their condition and how it limits their life. For example, they may not feel safe in public because they worry they may not be able to make it to a restroom on time, says Dr. McCabe. (Here’s what everyone should know about coping with anxiety.)
The shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing people get during an asthma attack can drive up the risk of anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association. “Your existing anxiety may be triggered by the internal sensations that come along with an anxiety attack,” says Robert Duff, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author of the Hardcore Self Help book series.
An underlying disorder
Well in advance of other symptoms, anxiousness can precede conditions such as thyroid or heart disease, or temporal lobe epilepsy, according to a report in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychodynamics. Researchers from Italy and Buffalo found that patients can develop anxiety symptoms years before doctors diagnose another condition.
Your red blood cells deliver oxygen to muscles, and when you run low—or the cells aren’t working properly—you can end up feeling fatigued. This is known as anemia, and a deficiency in iron is the most common cause. If you have anemia, your pulse may increase to help make up the oxygen loss, and that can create a sense of anxiousness. (Don’t miss these things people living with anxiety will understand.)
Zinc helps maintain the immune system, heal wounds, and support normal growth—and if you’re low, studies suggest the deficiency could make you feel anxious. The mineral helps support calming substances in the brain. Another deficiency that is linked with depression is vitamin D. A 2013 meta-analysis not only found that people with depression had low vitamin D levels, but people with vitamin D deficiencies were at a greater risk of depression and anxiety, too. Learn about these 10 trusted home remedies for anxiety relief.
The connection is as strange as it is upsetting: Research has found that as many as almost half of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer had symptoms and signs of anxiety and depression beforehand, though it’s unclear why. This type of cancer is thankfully rare: The American Cancer Society says that the average lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer for men is about 1 in 65.
This condition creates a chronic ringing due to faulty nerve signals from the ear, and it leaves people vulnerable to anxiety. “Tinnitus increases agitation, making it harder to relax,” says Paul Coleman, PsyD, a psychologist and author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces. “There is no such thing as pure quiet when you have tinnitus.” The condition can prevent sound sleep since it’s often most notable in the quiet of the night, notes Dr. Coleman. Often a white-noise machine can help drown out the ringing. (Don’t miss these tricks for dealing with anxiety, straight from therapists.)
Substance-induced anxiety disorder
People with this disorder may experience anxiety as a result of taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance, drug abuse, or withdrawing from drugs. They can feel tense or jittery, says Dr. McCabe. The ADAA says that about 20 percent of people with an alcohol or substance abuse issue also have a mood or anxiety disorder.
How are these disorders treated?
The treatment you’ll get depends on the type of disorder you’re struggling with. A mental health practitioner might recommend one or a combination of therapies, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Your doctor might prescribe an anti-anxiety drug, psychotherapy (where you discuss potential sources of your anxiety and how to deal with them), or cognitive behavior therapy, in which you learn to recognize and change the thoughts and actions that lead to your feelings. (Next, don’t miss these weird things that might be making you feel anxious.)
- American Psychiatric Association: "What Are Anxiety Disorders?"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Facts & Statistics"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Hyperthyroidism (Overactive Thyroid)"
- Randi E. McCabe, PhD, a clinical psychologist at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton in Canada and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry of Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University in Canada
- Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology: "Shorter sleep duration and longer sleep onset latency are related to difficulty disengaging attention from negative emotional images in individuals with elevated transdiagnostic repetitive negative thinking"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Sleep Disorders"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Diabetes and Mental Health"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)"
- American Psychological Association: "Breathing easier"
- Robert Duff, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author of the Hardcore Self Help book series
- Psychotherapy and Psychodynamics: "Mood and Anxiety Disorders as Early Manifestations of Medical Illness: A Systematic Review"
- PLoS One: "Zinc Deficiency Is Common in Several Psychiatric Disorders"
- American Cancer Society: "Key Statistics for Pancreatic Cancer"
- Pancreas: "Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer"
- Paul Coleman, PsyD, a psychologist and author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Substance Use Disorders"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Anxiety Disorders: Management and Treatment"
- The British Journal of Psychiatry: "Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis."