Anxiety And Low Energy Levels, Lethargy
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 14, 2019
Anxiety can cause low energy levels and lethargy, often described as episodes of no energy, feeling tired, seemingly exhausted, run down, and no ambition to do anything. Often a person can feel revved up and depleted at the same time, almost like pressing the brake and the accelerator simultaneously while driving. While the two might seem like opposites, there is a good reason why anxiety can cause these types of symptoms.
Low energy anxiety symptom can have several variables:
- Low energy episodes can last for a few moments, minutes, hours, days, and even weeks.
- Low energy episodes can range in severity from feeling slightly tired, moderately tired, or extremely exhausted.
- The intensity of feeling devoid of energy can remain constant, can vary from episode to episode, and can even vary from moment to moment. For example, you might feel supercharged with energy one moment but then suddenly and for no apparent reason lethargic the next.
- You can also feel listless for hours, and then for no apparent reason, feel full of energy for the next few moments or more only to feel listless again.
- Episodes of low energy can come out of blue and for no apparent reason and then disappear hours later for no apparent reason.
This symptom of feeling low in energy is often unpredictable. It can fluctuate at random, be periodic and sometimes continuous. It seems like it has no rhyme or reason.
Low energy levels can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.
This low energy levels symptom 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.
This feeling low energy symptom can range in intensity from slightly low energy, to moderately low energy, to severe lack of energy. It can also come in waves, where the intensity of the low energy is strong one moment and eases off the next.
This feeling low energy symptom can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.
Since each body is somewhat chemically unique and can experience anxiety symptoms in unique ways, all of the above combinations and variations are common.
If you are experiencing this low energy anxiety symptom, don’t be surprised by the many ways it can present itself.
Why anxiety can cause episodes of low energy
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.
There are many reasons why anxiety can cause episodes of low energy, feeling tired, and even feeling emotionally down. Here are the most common:
1. The after effects of stress
Stress, including the stress caused by apprehensive behavior, activates the stress response, an integral part of the body’s survival mechanism. The stress response causes the secretion of stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body 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”).
Stress hormones are stimulants that stimulate the body. This rapid boost in “emergency fuel” gives the body the energy we need to deal with an impending threat – to either fight or flee.
Because of the multitude of changes the stress response brings about, stress responses stress the body. After the stressor has passed, the body needs time to recover from the stress response changes. The length of recovery time is proportional to the degree and amount of time the body was stressed.
For example, if we experience an episode of brief stress, the body produces a stress response or series of stress responses to give us the sustained energy to deal with the stressor. After the stressor has passed, an episode of low energy can occur as part of the recovery phase.
In summary, it is the regular deployment of the "alarm chemistry" that leads to low energy and exhaustion.
2. The adverse effects of hyperstimulation
When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. Consequently, the recovery phase, which can include feeling devoid of energy, typically isn’t very long, such as from a few moments to 20 or so minutes depending upon the degree and length of stress response (or series of stress responses).
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 result in the body remaining 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"). Hyperstimulation can keep the body running on stress hormones preventing sufficient time to recover.
When stress hormones are flowing, we can feel energized, upbeat, and alert (thrill seekers love the rush of feeling pumped-up with stress hormones). But after the stressor has passed and stress hormones diminish, we can feel somewhat ill, tired, and even emotionally blue as the body recovers. Feeling low and devoid of energy often occurs as part of the after effects of chronic stress.
Short episodes of stress can cause short episodes of low energy as the body recovers whereas chronic episodes of stress can cause longer episodes of low energy as the body recovers.
It’s common to feel unusually lethargic, sleepy, unmotivated, and emotionally blue during these recovery phases. Many people experience low energy after major stressors. Again, the recovery phase is generally proportional to the length of stress hormone stimulation. Chronic stress is often followed by elongated periods of low energy.
3. Stress taxes the body’s energy resources harder and faster than normal
The survival mechanism places a high demand on the body’s energy resources so that we have the needed “boost” in energy when stressed. Consequently, stress causes the body to use up its energy resources more quickly than normal.
When stress is acute, we might not notice feeling lethargic after the stressor has passed since the demand for fuel was short-lived. But when stress is chronic, the body will need time to replenish its energy stores so that we can function normally. During the recovery phase and until the body has had sufficient time to restore its normal energy, we can feel devoid of energy.
Feeling low, and for an extended time, is a common experience for those who have just come through prolonged stress.
4. Stress can disrupt healthy sleeping patterns.
When we’re anxious and stressed, the body gives us the fuel we need to take action via stress responses. While this “extra energy” is welcome when we’re taking action, it can also override the body’s sleep mechanism, which can cause disrupted sleep.
When sleep is disrupted, the body tires more quickly. Sleepiness, foggy-headedness, feeling lethargic and experiencing low mood are common symptoms of sleep disruption.
Combine chronic stress with sleep disruption and you have the makings for chronic low energy.
5. Many people experience a mid-afternoon energy dip, which often is related to the body’s biological clock
The body has a 24-hour biological clock that regulates many bodily functions, including energy production and hormone secretion. This biological clock remembers patterns and cycles, and then works to replicate them the following day.
For example, the body’s biological clock typically boosts our energy in the morning so that we can get our day going, and then lowers it at night so we can sleep. Research has shown that many people experience a dip in energy mid-afternoon that coincides with how the biological clock regulates energy at that time of day.
Experiencing low energy mid-day could be attributed to the mid-afternoon energy dip.
6. Your diet might need adjusting
Since stress taxes the body’s energy resources harder and faster than normal, chronic stress, such as that caused by overly apprehensive behavior, can deplete the body of important nutrients (vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B, magnesium, iron, etc.). This is especially true if you aren’t eating properly or regularly enough to replenish these nutrients. Being deficient in important nutrients can cause episodes of low energy. A visit to your doctor or Natural Nutritional Therapist can help determine if you have a deficiency, and if so, what those deficiencies are.
Moreover, if you haven’t adjusted your eating patterns to accommodate the rapid energy consumption, you might become tired or exhausted as your body runs out of fuel. Physical fatigue can also affects our emotional health.
Not eating correctly to accommodate the extra demand for fuel and being deficient in certain nutrients can cause episodes of low energy.
The Recovery Support area includes additional reasons for experiencing low energy related to anxiety disorder and recovery.
Short-term remedies include:
1. Increasing rest and good sleep
Offsetting the adverse effects of stress with increased rest and good sleep can restore normal energy. The more you offset your stress with rest and good sleep, the faster the body can recover from the adverse effects of stress and return to normal energy.
Six to eight hours of sleep per night is considered healthy. Anything less than six restful hours of sleep per night is considered sleep deprivation.
2. Change your diet and eat more frequently when under stress
To avoid feeling tired, and especially when the body is stressed, eat smaller more frequent meals, as well as include more protein. Since protein takes longer to metabolize, the energy derived from it will sustain the body longer than carbohydrate-based foods that metabolize faster. Eating more frequently and increasing protein can provide a constant supply of energy. Feeling energized can elevate mood.
Furthermore, avoid high sugar, high fat, and fast foods that also stress the body, which can contribute to low mood. Since the body uses the foods we eat as fuel, we want to give the body the best fuel possible. Just as low-grade gasoline provides low-grade engine performance, low-grade food provides low-grade health and energy performance.
Eating a well-balanced diet can help prevent or alleviate deficiencies. Better yet, discuss your nutritional needs with a Natural Nutritional Therapist. You might be surprised at how your present diet might be adversely affecting your overall physical, psychological, and emotional health.
3. Avoid mid-afternoon dips by having a mid-day snack
To avoid mid-afternoon energy dips, have a mid-afternoon snack. A snack will increase the body’s fuel and energize it even though your biological clock may be trying to affect a dip in energy. You can also re-energize yourself by doing some exercises, going for a brisk walk, or simply by getting up and moving around.
Eating a snack or exercising can help alleviate low energy mid-afternoon.
Or, you can indulge the mid-afternoon energy dip by taking a break and resting or engaging in deep relaxation. Resting, especially deep relaxation, can restore your energy for the rest of the day.
4. Eliminate chronic stress and hyperstimulation
Overall, addressing your anxiety issues and eliminating hyperstimulation is the best way to eliminate episodes of low energy.
When you successfully address the cause of the problem – overly anxious behavior and the hyperstimulation it can cause – you’ll address the symptoms of the problem, as well.
Anxiety symptoms are just indications (symptoms) of a problem with anxiety. To eliminate the symptoms, we need to address the anxiety problem.
You can reduce hyperstimulation by reducing stress, increasing rest, getting good sleep, regular deep relaxation, regular mild to moderate exercise, eating a healthy diet, and spending time in nature, to name a few. Chapters 4 and 14 in the Recovery Support area list many more ways to eliminate stress and hyperstimulation.
Research has shown working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome anxiety disorder. While self-help materials can be helpful, a self-help only approach generally doesn’t produce the same level of meaningful or lasting results.
For a more detailed explanation about anxiety, anxiety symptoms, why anxiety symptoms can persist long after we think they should, 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
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 & Signs, 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. Such as:
- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to overcome it.
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. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." DUJS Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.
4. "Stress." University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.
5. 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/.
6. 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/.
7. Rabasa, Cristina, et al. "Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance." Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, June 2016, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154616300183
8. Sun Han, Kuem, et al. "Stress and Sleep Disorder." Experimental Neurobiology, 21 Dec. 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538178/
9. Sandoiu, Ana. “Afternoon Slump Explained by Brain's 'Reward Center'.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 22 Aug. 2017, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319092.php.
10. 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/.
11. 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.
12. Driessen, Ellen, et al. "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mood Disorders: Efficacy, Moderators and Mediators." Psychiatry Clinics of North America, Sep. 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933381/
Return to our anxiety symptoms page.