If you’re a woman and have ever felt confused by spiking anxiety shortly before your period begins, you’ve probably reminded yourself about hormones. (If anyone’s done that reminding job for you, you may also have unleashed a piece of your mind. For that, we applaud you.)
If you’re a woman or a man, you might have connected cortisol (a stress hormone) to anxiousness over work deadlines or a social situation that made you nervous.
But beyond knowing that hormones are causing anxiety, it can help to know why and how they do this. Knowledge is power, and understanding what’s at work when you’re feeling edgy can help you connect with the right tools to manage the experience. Here’s the rundown of the wild world of anxiety-related hormones, and how best to work with them.
Produced by men and women alike, progesterone and estrogen can have dramatically different effects on your mood. Because women release them in greater amounts, they tend to have a much stronger effect in women than in men.
Estrogen is higher during the first two weeks of a woman’s menstrual cycle—if you find yourself skipping and humming happy tunes, give your estrogen a high-five. This hormone creates higher levels of serotonin, which makes you happy.
If estrogen is the angel on your right shoulder, progesterone is the irritable devil on your left. This hormone increases shortly after ovulation, and in some people causes a glum, anxious mood. This may be because progesterone stimulates the amygdala—the part of your brain responsible for your fight-or-flight responses. Triggering the amygdala could make you feel super-stressed, and maybe even a little depressed.
Tracking your symptoms across your menstrual cycle can help you identify patterns and, while it can’t change your hormones, it can help you plan for stress by working in some self-care. If your mood swings are wearing you down, birth control pills could be an option worth talking to your doctor about, since they can go a long way toward balancing your hormones.
For some anxious people, their moods may be caused by an abundance of stress hormones—most notably, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones tell our bodies there’s something scary on the horizon, and we need to run away. Technically, stress hormones are designed to help us cope with danger: they increase our awareness and improve our reflexes. But when they flood through the brain in a normal, only slightly frightening situation—like preparing for a meeting, stressful airplane ride, or a thunderstorm—they create anxiety.
To make matters worse, an increase in stress hormones can cause us to release even more of them, until we have a cavalcade of worries. If this goes on for too long, baseline anxiety is likely to increase. Breathing exercises have consistently been shown to help reduce cortisol levels in the body.
One easy breathing technique is to place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to push out the hand that’s resting on it. Breathe out through your mouth, letting all the air out so that your belly draws that hand back in. Repeat 3-10 times.
Low testosterone has been linked to increased social anxiety. Generally, testosterone helps regulate the part of our brains that assess others’ emotions and respond to social threats. Low levels of testosterone in men or women might make it more difficult for you to know exactly what’s going on in social situations. That’s definitely anxiety-inducing!
If you find yourself getting extremely anxious in social situations, and have explored other options, talk to your doctor about perhaps testing your testosterone.
If you’re having frequent panic attacks or feel like your anxiety is particularly high, talk to your doctor about your thyroid. Thyroid hormones play a significant role in anxiety. Specifically, your thyroid-stimulating hormone (often called TSH) levels directly correlate with the severity of panic attacks.
Typically, anxiety disorders are linked with hyperthyroidism—an overactive thyroid—while depression is correlated with hypothyroidism, or an under-active thyroid. But bodies are complicated, and a number of other elements may come into play (you could be anxious and have hypothyroid, for example).
Think your anxiety may be connected to hyperthyroidism? Common symptoms may include nervousness, restlessness, irritability, weight loss, and irregular menstrual cycles. A simple blood test can tell you how your thyroid is functioning, and if it’s low or high and endocrinologist can help you find the right dose of medication to achieve a better balance.
Oxytocin is the hormone your brain emits when you fall in love, or when you’re bonding with a close friend (it’s often called the “love hormone”). And while this hormone can definitely help reduce anxiety, it’s also a double-edged sword. Remember all those times when bad things happened to you as a kid? Those moments stuck with you because of oxytocin.
When you go through a stressful event, oxytocin can intensify those memories, making you more likely to feel scared or worried the next time you’re in a similar situation. Over time, that can increase your social stress and exacerbate mental health conditions like social anxiety disorder.
If you find yourself revisiting a specific past trauma every time a similar future event comes up, talk therapy can help you learn how to respond when your body switches into “fight or flight” mode, and can help you unlearn negative social traits anxiety has taught you.
This advice, in fact, is true for all of the above situations. If anxiety is interfering in your life—whether or not you know the cause—seeking good professional care and support can turn things around so you can experience the calm of being back in balance and control.
Jamie Wiebe is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. She writes about mental health, real estate, interior design, and sociology. Before freelancing, Jamie worked as a web editor for House Beautiful, Veranda, ELLE Decor, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and The Wirecutter. In over 45 articles for TalkSpace, Jamie has provided insights to a broad range of mental health topics.