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:
- identifying what you’re really afraid of
- 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.
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:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists