Woman with an anxious, worried look
Home » Self-Care Blog » What is the Cause of Anxiety?

Anxiety can cause many uncomfortable and sometimes scary symptoms, such as shortness of breath, inability to control your emotions, or the feeling that you cannot move as well as:

  • chest pain,
  • sweating,
  • a pounding heart,
  • the feeling that you can’t breathe,
  • a lump in your throat,
  • nausea,
  • diarrhea (irritable bowel),
  • general irritability,
  • fatigue,
  • a looming sense of fear,
  • the inability to wind down to sleep, and so much more…

As with Nighttime Leg Cramps, Indigestion, Fat Loss, ED, Incontinence, AB Separation, or any Common Condition, knowing what is going on in our body is the key to finding the Self Care Actions that help to resolve them.

When it comes to Anxiety, here’s how we will figure out what may work:

  • First, we’ll walk through: What Creates Anxiety Symptoms?
  • Then: 8 Common Triggers that Can Promote Anxiety.

The Next Post Will Share Tips/Tools that can:

  • Lower Anxiety Quickly.
  • And Have Focused Actions that help Prevent Anxiety.

This 2-post series came from the below email:

Q: mo, What causes the way I feel when I have my anxiety symptoms? Are there things I can do when in anxiety and also to prevent it?

subscriber question about anxiety

A: What great questions. A very Simplified Answer- Anxiety symptoms come from

  1. Messaging between 3 brain regions that flood hormones and chemicals in the nervous system.
  2. The Nervous System signals ALL our other Systems to gear up for Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
  3. Our Amped Up Systems create the Symptoms that make us uncomfortable, like increased heart rate, feeling you can’t breathe, and inability to think, etc., and the uncomfortable symptoms can prompt a bigger sense of fear and anxiety about what is happening in your body, feeding, and escalating the anxiety loop.
Anxiety: Brain messages nervous system through brain stem. Brain Stem to nervous system Nervous system to organs

It can be very helpful to know this simplified description because knowing what is going on can help:

  • reduce the fear that NOT knowing what is going on can create.
  • identify possible triggers so you can more effectively
  • leverage the way the body works to help reduce your anxiety as quickly as possible, and
  • implement focused actions that, over time, can prevent the symptoms.

Let’s do a quick visual overview of the 3 areas of the brain and their roles in anxiety.

The 3 Areas Of the Brain

sie view of brain showing the 3 regions involved in Anxiety The Brain Stem, Limbic and Prefrontal cortex

Anxiety – 3 Areas of the Brain to know about

Messaging Between 3 areas of the Brain.

Area 1: The Brain Stem

The Brain Stem is responsible for our VITAL bodily functions like: (1)

  • Breathing
  • Consciousness,
  • Blood pressure,
  • Heart rate, even Chest Pain.
  • Digestion issues. (2)
  • Sleep
Anxiety. The Brain Stem is 1 of 3 Parts of the Brain involved.

The Brain Stem is KEY to the symptoms we experience because it controls our Involuntary Systems.

It is where our uncomfortable anxiety symptoms stem from. Examples include:

  • pounding heart,
  • the feeling that you can’t breathe,
  • lump in your throat,
  • nausea,
  • diarrhea (irritable bowel),
  • general irritability,
  • fatigue,
  • a looming sense of fear,
  • chest pain,
  • sweating,
  • inability to wind down to sleep and, and, and…

When the Brain Stem receives messaging from the Emotions Center #2 (Limbic System) that there is something to worry about, its response is to prepare the body to Fight, Flee, or Freeze.

Area 2 The Emotions Area

Limbic system. Its Job and Role in Anxiety

The Limbic Area #2 is where our Emotions process. Our feelings of:

  • Fear
  • Aggression
  • Attraction
  • Smell
  • Memory
  • Happy, Sad, Apprehension Feelings…

When the Emotions Area #2 is sending messaging to the Survival Area (Brain Stem #1) via hormones/chemicals, your body shifts physiology in such a way that you can be faster, stronger, and/or better able to freeze in place– if being motionless will help you survive.

Why do we feel anxiety in different parts of our body?

The answer is that the Brain stem is connected to your entire Nervous system. Your Nervous System directs all your Organs.

Bringing us back to The 1 Focus: Core Concept 1 of Self Care. Our Body is Made Up of Systems. They are 100% interconnected and interdependent on each other.

THe simple self care lifestyle


Your Brain Stem is connected to your entire Nervous System

The brainstem is the stalklike part of your brain that connects your brain to your spinal cord (column of nerve tissue that runs down your spine). It sits toward the bottom of your brain and is part of your central nervous system.(16)

To prepare your body to be able to Fight, Flee, or Freeze, the Brain Stem Area #1 signals the Nervous system to amp up what is needed for you to survive.

Anxiety: Brain messages nervous system through brain stem. Brain Stem to nervous system Nervous system to organs

Since the Brain Stem is connected to the Spinal cord, where your nerves run from head to toe, it may feel like anxiety can take over your entire body. Common ways anxiety symptoms display themselves:

  • Shallower and more rapid breathing.
  • Your brain becoming hyper-focused.
  • Blood pressure that is higher.
  • A Heart rate that is getting increasingly faster.
  • Digestion disturbances, i.e., bladder, bowel empties, and digestion put on hold…
  • Chemicals/Hormones stimulate your brain, keeping you awake…to name a few.

While the bodily functions are getting amped up, the

  • Thinking,
  • Planning,
  • Organizing,
  • Learning, and
  • Communication

Area #3 is being told to shut down. Literally go ‘offline.’ Making it hard to think, reason, learn, communicate…

Frontal Cortex our communication center.

# 3 The Thinking Area

Yup, as the Emotion Area #2 and the regulator of Vital Body Functions (Brain Stem Area #1) get overexcited- simultaneously, our Frontal Lobe Area #3, the area of the brain that enables us to reason, think things through, learn, communicate…is being prompted to turn off.

Shutting Down Thinking Was a Good Set-Up Until…

Temporarily shutting down the thinking, learning, reasoning, and communicating area the-Frontal Lobe#3 was a good thing because when it shut down, it allowed the Vital Body Functions Area #1 and Emotion Area #2 of your Brain to have the extra energy it needed to more rapidly take in:

  • sights,
  • sounds,
  • survival data, etc,…

Cutting off the reasoning processes that aren’t immediately needed to survive increases our chances of living, which is a great setup- that is, until lifestyles become full of things that trigger and mimic threats.

We’ll walk through 8 of the most common triggers in a moment.

This Hyped Up Hormone/Chemical Messaging In the 3 Areas Of The Brain is Meant to be Short-lived.

The Brain’s Emergency System:

  • Brain stem (Vital Life Forces) responding to the
  • Limbic Area (Emotions) sense of threat while simultaneously having the
  • Frontal Lobe (Reasoning, Communication, Learning Area…) shut down.

will reverse once the threat is gone. The Emotion Area #2 perceives you are safe, and the Brain Stem Area #1 starts the messaging to your Nervous System (again via hormones/chemicals) that all is well and it’s okay to decrease your heart rate, go back to deeper breathing, etc…

This Brings You Relief

Anxiety relief is the wording on top. Below a woman leaning back with Arms Bent hands on head with a big smile

This brings your body a sense of relief, along with the downshift of our Body Systems, our Thinking, Learning, and Communications… Front Lobe Area #3 receives the signal to come back online.

All is Well…

All is well UNLESS there is repeated and frequent pressure being placed on the three areas of the brain to keep this loop going.

This brings us to the 8 Common Triggers of this cascade or loop we will cover today.

8 Common Triggers That Can Promote Anxiety.

Chronic exposure to Triggers is causing anxiety to be so common these days.

Because our Brain does NOT do a good job distinguishing between

  • lifestyle stressors: school, job, relationship, social, overstimulation, lack of sleep, food excess, stimulant or intolerance, and
  • a life-threatening EMERGENCY.

we keep calling on the three areas of the Brain to work as if we need to push our body into survival mode.

This is so common in today’s lifestyle that a whopping 1/3 of adults experience anxiety.

Anxiety disorders affect nearly 1 in 3 adults. (15)

What Lifestyle Stressors Can Trigger The 3 Brain Areas in a Way that Causes Anxiety?

It can be one chronic big stressor or a low-level culmination of multiple smaller body stressors. Physiological factors and psychological factors. The Anxiety experience is very individual.

The commonality is that there is a sustained, chronic use of the messaging between the 3 Brain areas.

Let’s now explore eight common triggers that can cause physiological changes that promote anxiety.

Physiological examples

When we do things that influence the Brain Stem (Area 1) to:

  • Breathe shallower and more rapid.
  • Have the brain be hyper-focused.
  • Increase Blood pressure.
  • Quicken the Heart rate.
  • Disrupt Digestion.
  • Keep you from sleeping well…

our body responds to these signals.

If one physiological change on the above list is happening, that’s not a cause for the body to go into alarm mode, BUT if multiple factors are influencing the Nervous System in a way that mimics more of the same physiological responses, it can cross a tipping point into causing the anxiety.

8 Common ‘Things’ that Impact Our Brain Stem

Eight common things that can get the Brain Stem (Area 1) thinking that a real threat are items that trigger:

  • Breathing to be shallower and more rapid.
  • The Brain to be Hyper-focused.
  • An increase in Blood pressure.
  • The quickening of Heart rate.
  • A disruption in digestion.
  • Sleeplessness…

Because our brain does not differentiate where the source of these above bodily responses come from, the other Brain areas (2 and 3) get involved.

8 Common Triggers

Triggers often accumulate and then call on the ‘Brains emergency system.’ The chronic triggering of our Brain’s emergency response system often leads to it becoming easier and easier to set off the hormonal/chemical cascades, with the end result of experiencing anxiety.

Here are eight of the most common anxiety players. What’s great is once we become aware of their role, we can take action to modify them with great success because they are in our control.


  • Caffeine: (Coffee, Caffeinated Teas, Chocolate…) stimulates the central nervous system, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness.

Anxiety. The Brain Stem is 1 of 3 Parts of the Brain involved.

MSG and MfG

  • Free Glutamate: Found in most processed foods for flavor enhancement.(14) “The Truth in Labeling Campaign maintains a list of adverse reactions experienced by sensitive people, which includes depression, mood swings, rage reactions, migraine headache, dizziness, light-headedness, mental confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, and hyperactivity among the neurological reactions; with cardiac, circulatory, gastrointestinal, muscular, visual, respiratory, urological/genital, and skin reactions as well. Mood swings, however, are essentially experienced by all.” (14)

A list of Free Glutamate items:

Flavor Enhancers List


  • Alcohol: Alcohol impacts Area 2, which impacts the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which regulate anxiety. Plus, it increases the dependence of relying on Area 3, the Emotion region.

A suppressed frontal lobe (Area 3), where our Thinking, Reasoning, Organizing, and Communicating… are done, has us calling on our Emotion Area (3) to fill in the gaps.

Frontal Cortex our communication center.

For a small moment in time, alcohol may temporarily alleviate anxiety symptoms, but as the effects of alcohol wear off, anxiety levels rebound and potentially worsen. Alcohol also disrupts sleep.

Food Intolerances/Leaky Gut

  • Food Intolerances/Leaky Gut: Food intolerances and a leaky gut can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, leading to dysbiosis. The gut microbiota produces neurotransmitters and interacts with the gut-brain axis, impacting mood and anxiety levels. (4)

Inflammation of the GI tract places stress on the microbiome through the release of cytokines and neurotransmitters.

Coupled with the increase in intestinal permeability, these molecules then travel systemically.

Elevated blood levels of cytokines
increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, enhancing the effects of rogue molecules from the permeable gut.(9),(10) 

Their release influences brain function, leading to anxiety, depression, and memory loss.(10-12)

Nutrient Deficiencies or Low Dietary intake of Protein

  • Nutrient Deficiencies or Low Dietary intake of Protein

Evidence has shown that nutrition, including dietary patterns, foods, and individual nutrients affect anxiety.

Key nutrients (eg, B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc) regulate stress responses via involvement in the production and metabolism of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine.

…B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc are involved in the conversion of α-linolenic acid to longer-chain n-3 fatty acids; n-3 fatty acids are associated with lower risk of anxiety. (18)

Research shows that deficiencies in tryptophan and other amino acids can negatively affect brain function and promote the development of depression and anxiety disorders. Conversely, this means that depression causally triggered by a protein deficiency can be overcome with proper nutrition alone.

Increased dietary tryptophan resulted in fewer depressive symptoms and less anxiety(17)

Overstimulation/Lack of Downtime/Sleep disruption

  • Overstimulation/Lack of Downtime/Sleep disruption

Overstimulation can cause sleep disturbance. Sleep disturbance can contribute to anxiety. When the mind is churning, the lack of downtime exhausts the nervous system and will tire your body both physically and mentally because our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol (19)(20), so you stay on high alert.

HPA Axis that is functioning suboptimally

  • HPA Axis that is functioning suboptimally.

When our HPA Axis is functioning suboptimally, we expose all our systems to a chronically high level of circulating Cortisol, which can exhaust our ability to rebalance post-stressful experiences and set us up for anxiety.

too much exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all the body’s processes. This puts you at higher risk of many health problems, including: Anxiety. (21)

HPA Axis. Calm The Simple Self Care Lifestyle

Rebalancing HPA Axis

 Focusing first on lowering our ‘resting’ stress level can reduce our cortisol levels and, in turn, our anxiety. Doing this 1 thing each night while you fall asleep can re-balance your HPA Axis.

Too Little Exercise

  • Too Little Exercise: Regular exercise helps regulate the body’s stress response system by improving the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

The HPA Axis system can become dysregulated when we do not move enough, leading to elevated cortisol levels, which then can contribute to increased anxiety.

Even 1 minute of exercise can make a difference!

1 Minute Stretches The Simple Self Care Lifestyle

Benefits of using 1 min Stretches

Wrapping Up

The eight common triggers I just listed are things that we can

  • become aware of and
  • regulate.

This helps us to decrease falsely signaling the 3 areas of the Brain that there is an existential threat.

The fewer times we call on the Fight Flight, Freeze mechanism, the less likely we will experience anxiety symptoms.

Words Anxiety.Calling on 3 Areas of the Brain. Side view of the Brain with the numbers 1,2,3 on the areas of the Brain.

For many, trauma is a factor, and experiences can trigger anxiety.

Psychological Trauma

Difficult experiences in childhood, adolescence or adulthood are a common trigger for anxiety…

The absolute best Self Care for anxiety stemming from trauma is working closely with a healthcare professional trained in the field of mental health.

If you are experiencing anxiety symptoms, please always reach out to and consult with your healthcare practitioner for guidance, support, and a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.

Next Time:

HPA Axis. Calm The Simple Self Care Lifestyle

Lowering Anxiety Quickly

Anxiety: How to Lower Quickly and Tips to Prevent it: The Simple Self Care Lifestyle

Upcoming Post

References for you are listed below.

THe simple self care lifestyle


The Simple Self Care Lifestyle

References for you

1 Basinger H, Hogg JP. Neuroanatomy, Brainstem. [Updated 2023 Jul 4]. In: StatPearls Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan.

2 Travagli RA, Hermann GE, Browning KN, Rogers RC. Brainstem circuits regulating gastric function. Annu Rev Physiol. 2006;68:279-305. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.68.040504.094635. PMID: 16460274; PMCID: PMC3062484.

references continued

3 MediLexicon International. (n.d.). Does caffeine cause anxiety?. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/anxiety-and-caffeine

4 Chen Y, Xu J, Chen Y. Regulation of Neurotransmitters by the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Cognition in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients. 2021 Jun 19;13(6):2099. doi: 10.3390/nu13062099. PMID: 34205336; PMCID: PMC8234057.

references continued

5 Muscaritoli M. The Impact of Nutrients on Mental Health and Well-Being: Insights From the Literature. Front Nutr. 2021 Mar 8;8:656290. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2021.656290. PMID: 33763446; PMCID: PMC7982519.

6 Durrani D, Idrees R, Idrees H, Ellahi A. Vitamin B6: A new approach to lowering anxiety, and depression? Ann Med Surg (Lond). 2022 Sep 15;82:104663. doi: 10.1016/j.amsu.2022.104663. PMID: 36268413; PMCID: PMC9577631.

references continued

7 Buret AG. How stress induces intestinal hypersensitivity. Am J Pathol. 2006 Jan;168(1):3-5. doi: 10.2353/ajpath.2006.050958. PMID: 16400003; PMCID: PMC1592668.

8 Ding M, Lang Y, Shu H, Shao J, Cui L. Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis and Epilepsy: A Review on Mechanisms and Potential Therapeutics. Front Immunol. 2021 Oct 11;12:742449. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.742449. PMID: 34707612; PMCID: PMC8542678.

9 Lee K, Kim N, Shim JO, Kim G-H. Gut Bacterial Dysbiosis in Children With Intractable Epilepsy. J Clin Med (2020) 10(1):5. doi: 10.3390/jcm10010005

references continued

10. Gądek-Michalska A, Tadeusz J, Rachwalska P, Bugajski J. Cytokines, prostaglandins and nitric oxide in the regulation of stress-response systems. Pharmacol Rep 2013;65:1655-62.

11. Xie G, Zhou Q, Qiu C-Z, Dai WK, Wang HP, Li YH, et al.. Ketogenic Diet Poses a Significant Effect on Imbalanced Gut Microbiota in Infants With Refractory Epilepsy. World J Gastroenterol (2017) 23(33):6164–71. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v23.i33.6164

references continued

12. Riazi K, Galic MA, Kuzmiski JB, Ho W, Sharkey KA, Pittman QJ. Microglial Activation and TNFalpha Production Mediate Altered CNS Excitability Following Peripheral Inflammation. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2008) 105:17151–6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0806682105

13 Dicks LMT. Gut Bacteria and Neurotransmitters. Microorganisms. 2022 Sep 14;10(9):1838. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms10091838. PMID: 36144440; PMCID: PMC9504309.

references continued

14. Samuels A. Could Free Glutamic Acid in Processed Food be the Surprise Ingredient in Mood Disorders? Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2021 Sep 24;5:24705470211039206. doi: 10.1177/24705470211039206. PMID: 34870054; PMCID: PMC8642059.

15. Howard, L. (2023, June 3). Anxiety disorders will affect nearly 1 in 3 adults: Here’s what you need to know. news. https://health.ucdavis.edu/news/headlines/anxiety-disorders-will-affect-nearly-1-in-3-adults-heres-what-you-need-to-know/2023/05

16. Professional, C. C. medical. (n.d.). Brainstem: Overview, function & anatomy. Cleveland Clinic.

17. Lindseth G, Helland B, Caspers J. The effects of dietary tryptophan on affective disorders. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 2015 Apr;29(2):102-7. doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2014.11.008. Epub 2014 Dec 9. PMID: 25858202; PMCID: PMC4393508.

18. Kris-Etherton PM, Petersen KS, Hibbeln JR, Hurley D, Kolick V, Peoples S, Rodriguez N, Woodward-Lopez G. Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: depression and anxiety. Nutr Rev. 2021 Feb 11;79(3):247-260. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa025. PMID: 32447382; PMCID: PMC8453603.

19. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2023, August 1). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

20. Professional, C. C. medical. (n.d.-b). Cortisol: What it is, function, symptoms & levels. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22187-cortisol

21. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2023a, August 1). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic.