7 Questions To Ask Yourself The Next Time You Feel Intense Anxiety
Anxiety is often caused by unhealthy thought patterns, worries, and stress. However, sometimes that uncomfortable, distressful, and at times panic-inducing experience has little to do with what we're thinking, and more to do our biochemistry or what we just ate. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how much we "talk it out" because our anxiety has little to do with what our thoughts and more to do with these other culprits.
If you're feeling anxious and can't chalk it up to worry, ask yourself these questions:
1. Did you just have caffeine, sugar, or MSG?
All of the above can increase heart rate and cause hyperarousal and feelings of anxiety in some individuals. Pay attention to labels, and notice if your body reacts to certain foods or drinks containing such ingredients. I, for example, am not generally affected by caffeine (although my colleague's anxiety skyrockets if she drinks it), but if I order Chinese and forget to make sure there's no MSG, I'm up all night with heart palpitations and catastrophic thoughts. Check out this link for hidden sources of MSG.
2. Could hormones have something to do with it?
After deciding to cease oral contraceptives after a decade, I experienced a serious hormonal imbalance that mimicked menopause. Hot flashes, night sweats, heart palpitations, and cognitive and physical anxiety were present a good part of my days. After seeing my naturopath and working toward balancing my hormones, I noticed a significant improvement and felt calm (although anxiety still worsens for me at certain times in my cycle). If you're feeling anxious or depressed and can't pinpoint why, it might have to do with fluctuating or unbalanced hormones1.
3. Are you fatigued or getting sick?
Low energy, foggy brain, and a general sense of malaise contributes to anxiety in a couple of ways: 1) it creates a stress reaction as your body tries to fight illness, and 2) your cognitive functioning is affected, often resulting in feeling anxious, unfocused, and indecisive. Remember to lower your expectations for yourself in this case, especially for tasks involving cognitive performance.
4. Did you have a few too many glasses of wine last night?
I met a friend in Nicaragua who described his experience of "The Scaries" after we imbibed too much the night before. Before that, I thought I was the only one who experienced feelings of depression and anxiety as byproducts of a hangover (why do we drink again?). Alcohol messes with our nervous system and neurotransmitter levels, which can cause anxiety (or "The Scaries").
5. What's the state of your gut bacteria?
Growing evidence is revealing a connection between gut bacteria and anxiety. This is thought to be due to the vagus nerve, which connects the gut to the brain. Take your probiotics and be mindful of food intolerances! Many people have no idea of the brain-gut connection, or that their diet could be contributing to their experience of anxiety.
6. Could your blood sugar be low?
We're programmed to go into a state of anxiety in response to low blood sugar. Our body says "hunger" and sends our brain the message to find food. Some of us are more sensitive to this experience than others, so it might not be a bad idea to pay attention to your experience of anxiety's relationship to hunger.
7. Could you be deficient in certain nutrients?
B complex vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, potassium, magnesium, GABA, and zinc all play vital roles in neurotransmitter and nervous system function. Deficiencies in such nutrients are related to increased anxiety. Consider visiting a naturopath, holistic nutritionist, or dietitian, and supplementing your diet with some of these nutrients if you believe you aren't getting enough.
So, the next time you're experiencing anxiety and can't seem to talk yourself out of it, see if any of these factors might be coming into play. I invite others to add to this list in the comments section.
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.