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Restless Legs and Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes, What To Do

Marilyn Folk BScN medical reviewer
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 3, 2019

restless Legs and Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes, What To Do

Restless Leg Syndrome: Common symptom descriptions include:

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?

Medical Advisory

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:

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”).[1][2]

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").[3][4]

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.[5]

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:

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.[6][7]

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.

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Additional Resources:


1. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]

2. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

3. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4373764/.

4. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/.

5. Sevim, S, et al. “Correlation of Anxiety and Depression Symptoms in Patients with Restless Legs Syndrome: a Population Based Survey.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 1 Feb. 2004, jnnp.bmj.com/content/75/2/226.

6. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3584580/.

7. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2654783.

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