Restless Legs and Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes, What To Do
Restless Leg Syndrome: Common symptom descriptions include:
- When sitting or lying down you have to move your legs because they feel fidgety, extremely uncomfortable, or that they are filled with “nervous” energy. Once you move your legs, they feel relaxed for a moment but then feel restless again.
- This restless “energy” can sometimes feel impossible to quell. So much so that it causes sleep disruption because it can feel impossible to lie still for more than a few moments at a time.
- The energy you feel in your legs can be so strong that you are constantly moving your legs, tapping your feet, wiggling your toes, moving your feet, and shifting or shuffling your body.
Restless legs syndrome can be bothersome as it can prevent you from resting and relaxing, and especially when you feel exhausted. Sometimes this situation feels like an odd dichotomy where you are so tired you just want to rest or sleep but your legs feel like they want to keep going so you have to move them constantly because they feel so antsy.
Restless legs syndrome can affect one leg, both legs, or the entire lower half of the body.
It can also affect other areas of the body for some people, such as the groin, feet, arms, hands, torso, and phantom limbs.
Restless legs syndrome can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you have this symptom once in a while and not that often, have it off and on, or have it all the time.
Restless legs syndrome can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.
It can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur ‘out of the blue’ and for no apparent reason.
It can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves, where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.
Restless legs syndrome symptoms can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.
All of the above combinations and variations are common.
Since each body is somewhat biologically and chemically different, each person can have a unique symptom experience.
Restless legs syndrome can seem more disconcerting when resting, doing deep relaxation, when trying to go to sleep, or when waking up.
Why does anxiety cause restless leg syndrome?
We recommend all new, changing, persistent, and returning anxiety symptoms be discussed with your doctor as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including this anxiety symptom. If your doctor concludes your symptoms are solely anxiety-related, you can be confident there isn't a medical cause. Generally, doctors can easily determine the difference between anxiety symptoms and those caused by a medical condition.
Doctors aren't infallible, however. If you are uncertain about your doctor’s diagnosis, you can seek a second or more opinions. But if all opinions agree, you can be assured anxiety is the cause of this symptom.
In addition to anxiety and stress, there are some known triggers of restless legs:
- Some prescription and non-prescription medications can aggravate this symptom, including antihistamines, anti-nausea, antidepressants, and beta blockers. Talk with your doctor and pharmacist if you think medication is aggravating this symptom.
- Being still for lengths of time, such as on long trips, sitting in a movie theatre or concert, or confined to bed due to an illness or other medical reason.
- Lack of sleep.
- Caffeine or other ingested stimulants.
- Recreational drugs.
- Warm temperatures.
- Restrictive clothing.
When the “restless legs” symptom is caused by stress, as part of the body’s survival mechanism, the moment we believe we could be in danger the body produces a stress response. The stress response secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it. This survival reaction is the reason why it’s often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).
When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. When stress responses occur too frequently and/or dramatically, however, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can cause it to remain in a state of semi stress response readiness. We call this state “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants (also often referred to as "hyperarousal").
A body that becomes hyperstimulated can experience a wide range of symptoms due to the elevated level of chronic stimulation. Having “restless legs” and “nervous energy” are two examples.
Research has found a high correlation of anxiety and depression symptoms in patients with restless leg syndrome.
For a more detailed explanation, members can visit our “Restless Legs” symptom page in our Symptoms section (chapter 9) in the Recovery Support area.
How to get rid of anxiety-caused restless legs syndrome?
When this symptom is caused by stress, including anxiety-caused stress, some people have found these short-term strategies beneficial:
- Light to moderate exercise before resting or going to sleep
- A short leisure walk before resting or going to sleep
- Deep relaxation
- Deep muscle relaxation
- Avoid stimulants
- Avoid high sugar foods
- Quit smoking if you are a smoker
- Avoid alcohol (some people find alcohol consumption increases restless legs)
- Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about your medications
- Don't engage in stimulating activities before you want to rest or sleep
Overall, eliminating anxiety-caused restless leg syndrome requires reducing and eliminating the body’s hyperstimulation. As the body recovers from the adverse effects of hyperstimulation, it stops exhibiting symptoms, including restless legs.
You can speed up the recovery process by faithfully practicing healthy stress reduction strategies, such as reducing your stress load, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest and relaxation, and not worrying about this symptom. Yes, restless legs can be bothersome, but again, when your body has recovered from the adverse effects of hyperstimulation, this symptom will subside.
If you are having difficulty managing worry, you may want to connect with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome what seems like unmanageable worry and anxiety.
For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
You can read research about stress-caused restless legs in our article “Restless Leg Syndrome Caused By Stress.”
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
- For a comprehensive understanding of: Anxiety Disorders, Symptoms, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.
- Anxiety and panic attacks symptoms can be powerful experiences. Find out what they are and how to stop them.
- How to stop an anxiety attack and panic.
- Free online anxiety tests to screen for anxiety. Two minute tests with instant results.
- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to recover.
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