How Hormones Affect Anxiety & Vice Versa, According To Experts
Ah, hormones. Those truly magnificent "chemical messengers" regulate basically everything that goes on in the body. And while hormones might not be the first thing you think about when you consider your mental health, the relationship between hormones and anxiety is very real, and might offer some insight into your emotional wellbeing.
"Hormones in general impact a great deal — and changes in hormone levels can increase or decrease our ability to respond to the ever-changing world around us," Denver-based physician Dr. Savita Ginde, the VP of Medical Affairs at Stride Community Health Center and former chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, tells Bustle.
"We know that estrogen levels can affect both anxiety and depression. Exactly how is more of a mystery, but estrogen plays a part. In reverse, stress impacts hormones," Ginde says.
Chronic stress affects both adrenaline and cortisol, Ginde says, which can, in turn, throw the entire endocrine system out of whack. As a result, it's critical to try and find ways to limit and manage stress.
And while there are a variety of ways you might go about balancing hormones and treating anxiety, because these things feed each other so cyclically, Ginde's suggested first line of defense to create balance is practicing emotional coping techniques.
"An often overlooked strategy [to balancing hormonal anxiety] is emotional — meaning being more aware of ourselves and how we react in difficult or unexpected situations," Ginde says. "By working to strengthen resilience through things like patience, empathy, critical thinking, and problem-solving, you're better able to manage any impact on our abilities that result from hormonal changes."
Below, take a look at some of the interesting ways that hormones and anxiety are related to one another.
1. Anxiety Causes The Release Of Stress Hormones And Visa Versa
In a way, anxiety and it's hormonal response are kind of like a snake eating it's own tail. It's hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.
"Anxiety can cause a stress response cascade that stimulates our adrenal glands to produce more stress hormones, such as cortisol," physician and OB/GYN, Dr. LaKeischa McMillan, who currently serves patients at functional medicine practices in the Maryland and Virginia areas, tells Bustle. "When this happens the stress hormones tend to "steal" essential building blocks from the sex hormone pathway."
And when this happens for a prolonged period of time, McMillan says, "you can begin to feel the affects that manifest as anxiety, depression, or just feeling out of balance."
2. There Are Physical Signs If Your Anxiety And Hormones Are Related
Some signs that your hormones and your anxiety might be related are unexplained shifts in insomnia, acne, unusual hair growth, and a decreased libido.
"Hormones play an essential role in our mood, motivation, focus, and overall health of our various systems," McMillan says.
If you are noticing some of these symptoms and are uncertain of the causes, a trip to your healthcare provider is always a good idea. This way you can check hormone levels and gain some insight onto what's going on internally that may also be affecting your moods and physical health.
3.There Are Particular Times In Life Where Hormones And Anxiety Are More Likely To Be Linked
Not surprisingly, there are times in life where your hormones are shifting in a big way and thus, you may experience emotional imbalance. Of course, puberty is one of these instances, but it's certainly not the only time!
"Adolescence can be a time where your emotional and mental health might be more impacted by the sudden rise of hormone levels," McMillan says, but so can andropause for men — when their testosterone is declining — and perimenopause and menopause for women. This is when all three sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are declining.
Pregnancy and post-partum are another example of these major shifts.
4. Taking Hormones Can Both Balance Emotions Or Throw Them Out Of Whack
There are all kinds of reasons that people take hormones, from birth control to gender transitioning, and depending on your unique body chemistry, it can potentially help balance your hormones, or cause unpleasant emotional side effects.
"When you are taking hormones for gender transition your anxiety can be elevated due to the level of hormones that are needed," McMillan says.
It's possible that one might experience anxiety hormonally as a female is transitioning to male, McMillan says, because elevation of testosterone can sometimes contribute to anxiety.
"On the other hand when you are getting back in balance — for example if you are in andropause, perimenopause, or menopause — getting your levels back up into an optimal range [through taking hormones] could help decrease anxiety," McMillan says.
Hormonal forms of birth control can also sometimes contribute to an increase in anxiety for some women, McMillan says.
Talking to your doctor about any side effects you may have when taking hormones can help you to work on coping mechanisms and solutions together.
5. Hormonal Anxiety Might Be Related To Your Menstrual Cycle
Maybe this one is not so surprising, but increased anxiety around particular phases of your menstrual cycle is also a possibility. And when that anxiety or mood shift hits, it might be different for everybody. So keeping a diary of your moods and cycle can be a real tell-all.
"Tracking your menstrual cycle — online apps can help — you'll be able to monitor if your changes in stress and anxiety have a connection to menstruation," Ginde says. "You can use this same tracking for calendaring out days when you might feel your highest levels of anxiety and see if you can determine a correlation to any one thing."
6. Hormonal Stress Can Impact Your Guts
Stomach aches and gut issues might arise during times of stress and anxiety, and not just because of those terrible nervous stomach aches and appetite changes.
There are ways that your digestive system is impacted on a deeper level when it comes to the impacts of stress hormones.
"Stress also changes digestion and will throw off the delicate microbiome in your gut," acupuncture physician Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, who completed a medical rotation at the University of Arizona’s Center of Integrative Medicine, tells Bustle. "Stress can [aide in] increasing bad bacteria in the digestive system which weakens the gut."
If you are noticing struggles with your digestive system, researching ways to re-balance your gut nutritionally is one step to healing, as is finding professional support.
7. You Might Notice Changes In Your Skin
The skin really tells all, doesn't it?
Your endocrine system might show stress and anxiety by more breakouts on your face, neck, or back, and this is related to the inflammatory nature of stress hormones.
"Anxiety can also trigger immune issues like psoriasis and eczema which will show up in scaly patches or eczema," Trattner says. "Inflammatory hormones can rise and cause an outbreak of these two skin disorders. Skin issues may flare up after the stressful time or show up about two weeks to a month after."
Again, you can take any of these symptoms or information to your health care provider for advice. If you find your hormonal shifts and anxiety are not directly related, they can also help you to consider other causal possibilities.