What happens if anxiety gets worse?

Anxiety is a common mental health condition that involves excessive and persistent worry about everyday situations. It affects over 40 million adults in the United States each year. For some people, anxiety can be managed well with lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication. But for others, anxiety can worsen over time and start to cause significant distress or impairment in daily life.

How can you tell if your anxiety is getting worse?

Some signs that anxiety may be worsening include:

  • Increased frequency, intensity or duration of anxiety and panic attacks
  • Ongoing worries and fears that are difficult to control
  • Avoiding more places, situations or activities due to anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating at work or school
  • Problems sleeping due to restless thoughts and worries
  • Feeling tense, restless or keyed up most of the time
  • Increased irritability, anger or conflicts with others

Pay attention to any symptoms that are happening more often or feelings stronger than before. Keep in mind that some ups and downs are normal. But if anxiety is interfering with your daily life for weeks at a time, it may be getting worse.

Why might anxiety get worse over time?

There are several possible reasons why anxiety may worsen, including:

  • High levels of stress – Major life stressors, trauma or prolonged stress can exacerbate anxiety.
  • Medical conditions – Conditions like thyroid disorders, heart disease or chronic pain may trigger anxiety.
  • Medication side effects – Some medications, supplements and drugs can produce anxiety as a side effect.
  • Withdrawal from medications – Stopping anti-anxiety medications or certain other drugs suddenly can cause anxiety to rebound.
  • Substance abuse – Excessive alcohol, caffeine or drug use can worsen anxiety.
  • Failure to seek treatment – Leaving anxiety untreated for long periods allows symptoms to become more severe.
  • Changes in brain chemistry – Severe anxiety may alter brain function over time, making symptoms worse.

If you notice your anxiety getting progressively worse, identifying potential causes is an important first step. This can help guide effective treatment.

When to see a doctor or mental health professional

It’s a good idea to touch base with your doctor or a mental health professional if your anxiety symptoms are:

  • Causing significant distress
  • Interfering with work, school or relationships
  • Causing difficulty leaving your home
  • Leading to avoiding many situations or places
  • Associated with depression, substance abuse or thoughts of self-harm

A licensed therapist or psychologist can provide counseling to help you manage anxiety. They may also recommend anti-anxiety medication if appropriate. Getting professional care is key if your anxiety has been worsening or is severely impacting your quality of life.

Lifestyle changes to manage worsening anxiety

Along with professional treatment, making certain lifestyle adjustments can help get anxiety under control, including:

  • Reduce stress – Make time for relaxing activities and find healthy ways to cope with stress.
  • Improve sleep habits – Aim for 7-9 hours per night and go to bed and wake up at consistent times.
  • Exercise regularly – Physical activity can relieve pent-up tension from anxiety.
  • Avoid alcohol and illicit drugs – These substances make anxiety worse in the long run.
  • Eat a healthy diet – Limit caffeine, sugar and processed foods which may negatively impact mood.
  • Try relaxation techniques – Meditation, yoga, deep breathing and mindfulness can calm the mind.
  • Connect socially – Spend time with supportive loved ones who help lower anxiety.

Making targeted lifestyle changes and getting professional treatment helps prevent anxiety symptoms from spiraling out of control.

When to seek emergency help

In some circumstances, severely worsening anxiety requires emergency care, such as if you experience:

  • Panic attacks that don’t respond to typical coping strategies
  • Racing, uncontrolled thoughts
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart palpitations or intense chest pain
  • Feelings that you’re detached from yourself or reality
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others

Getting emergency assistance, through calling 911, visiting an emergency room or crisis counseling center, is crucial if anxiety reaches a point where you fear you may lose control or hurt yourself. There are also national hotlines, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where you can speak with someone immediately if struggling with anxiety or depression.

Medications to treat worsening anxiety

If anxiety becomes debilitating, anti-anxiety medications may be helpful to restore balance in brain chemistry and keep symptoms in check. Some commonly prescribed medications for worsening anxiety include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline, escitalopram or fluoxetine help boost serotonin levels.
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as duloxetine or venlafaxine regulate serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Benzodiazepines like alprazolam, clonazepam or lorazepam relieve anxiety symptoms quickly.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine can be effective for some anxiety disorders.
  • Beta blockers like propranolol may control physical anxiety symptoms.

These medications require a prescription from a doctor and often take several weeks to start working. They also carry side effects like headache, nausea or drowsiness. Make sure to work closely with your doctor to find the right medication and dosage for your anxiety symptoms.

Are anxiety medications addictive?

Some types of anti-anxiety medications do carry more risk of dependency and abuse. Benzodiazepines in particular can become addictive if used long-term. Tolerance can also build, leading to needing higher and higher doses to get the same effect.

This is why benzodiazepines are typically only prescribed short-term for severe anxiety or panic attacks. Your doctor should closely monitor your use and dosage if benzodiazepines are prescribed.

SSRIs, SNRIs and tricyclic antidepressants have a much lower addiction potential. They are the preferred choice for long-term anxiety treatment. But it’s still wise not to stop any psychiatric medication abruptly without medical supervision.

Therapy for anxiety that keeps getting worse

Medication alone is often not enough to fully treat worsening anxiety. Ongoing counseling or psychotherapy is crucial as well. Having regular sessions with a licensed mental health professional trains your brain to respond less severely to anxiety triggers. Some proven effective therapies include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns that fuel anxiety.
  • Exposure therapy – This involves gradual, controlled exposure to anxiety-inducing situations to desensitize you to them.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) – ACT teaches mindfulness and accepting distressing thoughts and feelings.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – DBT develops skills to regulate emotions, manage stress and improve relationships.

Many people struggling with severe anxiety find a combination of medication and regular therapy sessions to be most effective. Building a comprehensive treatment plan can help prevent anxiety from worsening over the long haul.

When does anxiety peak?

Anxiety disorders often first develop in young adulthood, but have the potential to worsen at any age if left untreated. People ages 30-44 currently have the highest prevalence of anxiety in the United States at over 23%.[1]

Certain life stages can act as triggers and cause anxiety to spike, such as:

  • Adolescence – Social pressures, academic stress or traumatic events can provoke anxiety in teens.
  • Early adulthood – Major life changes like college, new jobs, or relationships can heighten anxiety.
  • Middle age – Mounting responsibilities or midlife crises may worsen anxiety.
  • Older adulthood – Health changes or the death of loved ones are anxiety triggers.

However, anxiety can follow an unpredictable course. Symptoms may ebb and flow over months or years. Ongoing stress, trauma, genetics, temperament and brain chemistry all contribute to when anxiety peaks or declines.


Left unchecked, anxiety is a condition that often worsens over time. The toll that unrelenting anxiety takes can be exhausting and debilitating. If anxiety feels like it’s spiraling out of control, remember help is available. Reach out to a mental health professional or doctor so they can implement comprehensive treatment. With consistent lifestyle changes, therapy, medication and social support, most people can manage anxiety symptoms effectively and prevent them from worsening further.

Type of Anxiety Disorder Common Symptoms
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Excessive worry happening more days than not for at least 6 months, difficulty controlling worry, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, trouble sleeping
Social Anxiety Disorder Extreme uneasiness in social settings, avoidance of social situations, intense fear of being judged or embarrassed
Panic Disorder Sudden recurrent panic attacks involving deep fear and physical symptoms like racing heart, dizziness, hyperventilation

[1] National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml

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