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13 Things that can cause anxiety


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Nervousness, panic, fear, sweating, rapid heartbeat: all can be symptoms of anxiety. And in times of true danger, anxiety and its symptoms are totally normal and healthy. But sometimes those feelings go into overdrive at the wrong time, and anxiety winds up interfering with daily life.

"If an individual gets to the point where healthy worries and being careful crosses a line into what would be considered a disorder, then that person's ability to function in daily life…is impaired," Una McCann, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Anxiety Disorders Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells Health. "It can really detrimentally affect someone's life."

Eventually, anxiety may escalate to the point that a person is unable to do their job, perform household duties, or care for themselves or loved ones as they normally would, Dr. McCann explains. Knowing what may be causing or worsening the anxiety may help to prevent it from getting to this level.

The triggers of anxiety are different for everyone, but here are some of the more common ones.

what causes anxiety


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Thinking there’s something physically wrong with you

Is this pain in my chest a sign that I'm having a heart attack? Does my skin rash mean I have cancer? Anxiety can often stem from worry that there is something wrong with your body. Everyone has concerns about their health from time to time, but depending on someone's history and personality, Dr. McCann says that physical symptoms can trigger a full-on anxiety disorder if the worrying interferes with daily functioning.

The physical symptoms that first made you start feeling anxious about your health can also be very similar to some of the symptoms of anxiety itself—increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, feeling weak—which can lead to a cycle of anxiety.

Worries about your loved ones

For some, anxiety does not come from worry about themselves, but rather what can happen to their loved ones. Dr. McCann says that people might fret not only about something happening to their children, close family members, or friends, but also about how they can possibly cope if something bad actually does happen.

According to the Mayo Clinic, caregivers are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety. Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, a research report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, shows that 61% of the estimated 53 million caregivers in the US are women. And studies have shown that, among caregivers, women report higher levels of anxiety than men.

How much money you have (or don't have)

One reason why finances might trigger anxiety is because, in our minds, money is linked to survival. "Money is really a resource that can provide people with a sense of safety and security," Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a psychologist in New York City previously told Health. "When we feel that resource is scarce, it can actually make people feel like their survival is in jeopardy on a very primal level."

Some of the common financial stressors have to do with concerns about savings, job security, salary, lack of financial savvy, debt, identity theft, and wealth comparison.

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Not getting enough sleep

According to the CDC, adults should get at least 7 hours of a good quality sleep per day. Not getting enough of that recommended sleep time is another factor that can worsen anxiety. Over the years, Dr. McCann has done studies on the link between sleep deprivation and anxiety. Through this work, she has found that regardless of whether or not someone has an anxiety disorder, anxiety levels go up following a night of sleep deprivation.

This link can be a vicious cycle: while sleep deprivation can cause anxiety, anxiety can cause sleeping problems, as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America points out.

Dr. McCann also notes that when people are sleep-deprived, they become much more sensitive to the effects of anxiety-inducing substances, such as caffeine and other stimulants.

Stimulants—including coffee

Yes, coffee can make anxiety worse. Susan Bowling, PsyD, a psychologist at the Women's Health Center at the Wooster Branch of Cleveland Clinic, previously told Health that some studies show that consuming more than 200 milligrams of caffeine (about the amount in just two cups of coffee) can increase the likelihood of anxiety and panic attacks in people sensitive to it.

"The natural effects of caffeine stimulate a host of sensations, such as your heart beating faster, your body heating up, your breathing rate increasing—all things that mimic anxiety," Bowling told Health. "Psychologically, it's difficult for your mind to recognize that this is not anxiety because it feels the same."

Other stimulants can trigger anxiety too. While some with anxiety might use marijuana as a way to relax, Dr. McCann says that marijuana actually has stimulating compounds that can worsen anxiety. "Unfortunately, many people attempt to self-medicate when they become anxious, and that can really backfire," Dr. McCann tells Health.

She reminds her patients who attempt to self-medicate this: just because something says it's herbal and natural—like marijuana—doesn't mean it's safe. And when you're buying food, such as herbs, online or in the store, and the label says it can be relaxing, she says to be "very, very careful. Don't do it unless you have really expert guidance."

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