If you’ve ever felt confused by spiking anxiety shortly before your period begins, don’t worry: You’re not alone. Our hormones directly affect our anxiety levels. And it’s not just progesterone — a number of hormones can influence how stressed you’re feeling on any particular day, regardless of whether you have a uterus or not.
Here’s the rundown of the wild world of hormones inside our body — and info about how they can increase (or help!) your anxiety.
Is anxiety a chemical imbalance?
Anxiety disorders can be linked to chemical imbalances in the body, along with other physiological factors such as sleep, diet, and exercise. So too, hormone imbalances can also reduce or increase your anxiety. Progesterone, the female sex hormone, stimulates the part in the brain that is responsible to your fight-or-flight responses and may trigger your anxiety. Low testosterone contributes to anxiety as well, as it regulates the part of the brain that is responsible to assess social threats and emotions of others to allow us to lead a healthy social life. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol induce our anxiety in safe, normal scenarios like a job interview or a date. And oxytocin can intensify memories and generate dread towards future similar events.
Here is a more detailed overview of these hormones and how they work:
Progesterone and Estrogen
These two hormones are vitally important to the menstruation cycle and can have dramatically different effects on your mood. Estrogen is higher during the first two weeks of your cycle — and 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 generally causes a glum, anxious mood. Science indicates that 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.
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 our bodies cope with danger: they increase our awareness and improve our reflexes. But when they flood through your brain in a normal, only slightly frightening, situation — like when preparing for a meeting, stressful airplane ride, or a thunderstorm — they create anxiety.
To make matters worse, an increase in stress hormones can cause your body to release even more stress hormones, until you have a cavalcade of worries. If this goes on for too long, your baseline anxiety is likely to increase.
Women tend to be more anxious than men, and while there are a number of reasons this is true, one of them might be hormone-related. Low testosterone has been linked to increased anxiety, specifically, increased social anxiety. Generally, testosterone helps regulate the part of our brains that assess others’ emotions and respond to social threats. Low levels might make it more difficult for you to know exactly what’s going on in social situations. That’s definitely anxiety-inducing!
To be clear, this isn’t explicitly a gender-based anxiety. Women produce testosterone, too, and men can have low levels. If you’re cursed with social anxiety disorder, and have explored other options, talk to your doctor about perhaps testing your testosterone. Researchers have found that testosterone can make it easier to make eye contact — an essential ingredient to a healthy social life.
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: your thyroid-stimulating hormone (often called TSH) levels directly correlate with the severity of panic attacks.
Typically, anxiety disorders are correlated with hyperthyroidism — an overactive thyroid — and 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 hypothyroid, for example).
Think your anxiety may be connected to hyperthyroidism? Common symptoms may include:
- Weight loss
- Irregular menstrual cycles
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 you were bullied 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.
While it may be unnerving to think about the hormones your body is putting out, remember: nothing is hopeless. Many medications are designed to deliberately help fight off the negative repercussions of your body’s hormones. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about what might work best for you. Working with a therapist can also 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. Just being aware of what’s happening in your body is often key to accepting stressful feelings and emotions.