man with anxiety looks out window

Can a person’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder can be influenced by a range of internal and external factors, including hormones such as testosterone? Examples of these risk factors include exposure to overwhelming stress, a history of untreated trauma, genetic variations, and unbalanced levels of various neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

In recent years, several research efforts explored a potential addition to this list: low testosterone.

What Is Testosterone?

Testosterone is a hormone responsible for primary and secondary sex characteristics in men, such as:

  • Development of the penis and testes
  • Hair patterns
  • Vocal depth
  • Muscle mass
  • Bone density
  • Sex drive
  • Production of sperm

Though testosterone is often associated only with men, this hormone is also important for women. In women, testosterone is involved in ovarian functions, bone strength, energy levels, and sex drive.

Testosterone, Mental Health, and Cognition

In addition to the physical features and functions that we describe above, testosterone can also have an impact on a person’s mood, cognition, and behavior.

A February 2015 article in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience noted that deficient levels of testosterone may contribute to the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impaired spatial cognition
  • Memory problems

The study authors reported that researchers hadn’t established a causal relationship between testosterone and the mental functions listed above. They also noted that considerable work remains before we understand how testosterone affects the brain.

Here’s how they describe our current knowledge on the topic:

“Most of the published literature agrees on the fact that testosterone is anxiolytic, anti-depressant and improves spatial abilities. But this picture is oversimplified. Many variables add to the complex interactions between testosterone and the brain.”

Three years after the publication of that article, the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology published a report on the effect of testosterone on anxiety-like behaviors in rodents. For this report, a team from Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, studied the impact of testosterone across the entire rodent life cycle.

They found:

  • Prenatal exposure to excessive testosterone is associated with impaired neural development and diminished mental functioning.
  • Testosterone exposure during brain development predicts higher anxiety in males.
  • Injection with testosterone at birth predicted anxiety-related behavior later in life.
  • Sex differences in several anxiety tests are linked to “the organizational effects of testosterone at peri-pubertal age.”
  • Testosterone exposure and social experience during adolescence appear to have an equal impact on increases in anxiety-like behaviors.
  • Supplemental testosterone can ease anxiety-like behaviors in older rodents, if they receive the right dose for the right length of time.

Here’s how the Slovakian team characterized their findings:

“Testosterone exposure or even deficiency in critical periods of development may have long-lasting consequences persisting into middle- or old age.”

Finding the Link Between Testosterone and Anxiety

Both papers mentioned in the previous section suggested a strong connection between testosterone and anxiety. But neither identify how, exactly, testosterone affects anxiety.

A December 2023 study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry provides additional clarity on the mechanism through which testosterone impacts the brain, specifically in relation to anxiety.

Led by Shira Knafo of the School of Brain Sciences and Cognition at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, the international team that conducted this study on rodents focused on a brain receptor called TACR3.

The team identified  the following findings:

  • TACR3 expression in the hippocampus (involved with learning and memory) increased as rodents reached sexual maturity.
  • Sex hormones affected TACR3 expression after rodents reached full sexual maturity.
  • Male adolescent rodents with lower testosterone levels exhibited “more intense anxiety-like behavior” than adult male rodents.
  • Inadequate TACR3 had a negative impact on synaptic plasticity. Plasticity refers to the ability to repair or reorganize neural connections based on injuries, experiences, and other factors.
  • Tesyosterone increased the expression of TACR3 in the hippocampus, which promoted greater synaptic plasticity and led to a reduction in anxiety-like behaviors.

Here’s how the research team from Israel described their results:

“The findings of this study shed light on the potential importance of hippocampal TACR3 in modulating anxiety, providing valuable insight into the intricate interplay between TACR3, sex hormones, and anxiety-related mechanisms.”

Warning Signs of Anxiety Disorders

The studies discussed in this article looked at the link between testosterone levels and “anxiety-like behaviors” in rodents. Since rodents can’t talk, the researchers focused on grooming habits, movement within their environment, interactions with other rodents, and similar behaviors to assess anxiety.

Humans, of course, can talk. We can describe our fears, worries, and other emotions. However, when we develop an anxiety disorder, the ability to express what we feel can be compromised.

In some cases, people with anxiety disorders may not even realize the degree to which the disorder affects their behavior and compromise their quality of life.

The anxiety disorders section of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes criteria for 11 distinct disorders. Since each disorder can impact different people in different ways, it is virtually impossible to create a comprehensive list of every possible warning sign of an anxiety disorder.

With that in mind, consider the following common signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders:

  • Persistent feeling of fear or worry that is either excessive or unrelated to specific event or occurrence
  • Sense of impending doom or an unspecified threat
  • Frequent restlessness or a feeling of being “on edge”
  • Continual muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue
  • Problems with concentration and focus
  • Easily becoming agitated or irritated
  • Disrupted sleep patterns

In some cases, people who have anxiety disorders may experience intense physical symptoms such as:

  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling of being smothered or choked
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Tingling in hands and feet
  • Trembling and shaking

People with anxiety disorders often experience significant distress as a result of their symptoms, which can impair their ability to function in school, at work, or in the context of their interpersonal relationships. In an attempt to avoid triggers (situations or circumstances that can prompt the onset of symptoms), they may make drastic behavior changes, which can further diminish their quality of life.

Anxiety Disorder Treatment in Southern California

If someone in your life has exhibits warning signs of an anxiety disorder, they should seek an assessment performed by a qualified healthcare provider. Untreated anxiety can have a devastating impact on  life – but when a person gets the care they need, they can take great strides toward a healthier and more hopeful future.

Crownview Psychiatric Institute in Oceanside, California, is a trusted provider of personalized, evidence-based care for adults whose lives have been impacted by anxiety disorders and other complex mental health concerns. Our dynamic programming includes an array of integrative therapies and adjunct services, all provided within a supportive community-like environment.

To learn more about how we can help your loved one, please visit our Contact Us page or call our center today.