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Feeling restless

8-minute read

Everyone can feel restless and fidgety from time to time. However, when restlessness is experienced more frequently and is accompanied by other symptoms it can interrupt daily life and reduce a person’s quality of life.

Restlessness may affect your mental state and be experienced as an inability to remain at rest, difficulty in concentrating, not being able to relax or being constantly uneasy. It may also be something that affects you physically, such as in restless legs syndrome.

What can cause restlessness?

Occasional restlessness can be part of normal life, but when it is experienced often, restlessness may be a feature of a medical condition.

Conditions that may cause restlessness

Some conditions that may feature restlessness as a symptom include:

  • depression — if you are depressed, you may feel angry, irritable, or restless
  • bipolar disorder — restlessness and feeling on edge can be associated with episodes of mania or hypomania, and also with depressive episodes
  • anxiety — people who have an anxiety condition can feel restless and tense
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — restlessness and fidgeting are symptoms of hyperactivity in ADHD
  • dementia — people with dementia may experience ‘sundowning’, where they become restless in the late afternoon and evening; dementia can also cause agitation, which can show itself as repetitive talking and asking questions, or pacing
  • hyperthyroidism — where the thyroid gland is overactive – can cause symptoms of restlessness, nervousness and irritability
  • restless legs syndrome — this causes an unpleasant urge to move the legs to relieve discomfort, usually in the evenings, often affecting sleep
  • alcohol withdrawal — detoxing from alcohol (if you have developed a dependence on it) can cause symptoms including restlessness and agitation
  • illicit drug withdrawal — restlessness and irritability can result from withdrawal from some illicit drugs.

(Always discuss withdrawal from alcohol or drugs with your doctor first. Side effects may be severe and you may need support or medical supervision.)

Medicines that may cause restlessness

Some medicines may cause akathisia, a distressing syndrome that features restlessness. With akathisia, the affected person is unable to stay still. They may shuffle their feet and march on the spot. Akathisia is very upsetting and can cause suicidal thoughts.

Akathisia can be a side effect of several types of medicines, including some antipsychotics and some antiemetics (medicines to stop you feeling sick).

If you or someone you care for is experiencing suicidal thoughts call triple zero (000) or go to your nearest emergency department.

If you think a medicine is causing your restlessness, speak to your doctor or pharmacist for advice. There may be an alternative medicine that does not have that side effect.

Self-help for restlessness due to anxiety or depression

If your restlessness is impacting on your day to day life, see your doctor. Whether the cause is medical or psychological, they can help you access appropriate help.

If your restlessness is a symptom of anxiety or depression, in addition to getting professional help from your doctor or a mental health professional, there may be some things you may be able to do yourself to improve your symptoms.

To help you cope with feelings of restlessness or irritability, try some of the following tips.

  • Meditatemeditation can train the mind to ignore impulses and enable you to stay calmer and focused during periods of anxiety or stress. Mindfulness can reduce stress and help you to manage depression and anxiety.
  • Try breathing exercises — they can reduce stress and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Talk to your family, friends and work colleagues — don’t bottle up your emotions. If you have an issue with someone, try to deal with it straight away so you’re not stewing over it and causing yourself unnecessary stress.
  • Cry if you need to — some people find it can make them feel better. Don’t feel embarrassed. Crying may ease pressure and tension.
  • Eat a balanced diet — a poor diet can increase feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Get enough sleep — sleep is closely linked to your mental health.
  • Notice your feelings — be aware of changes in your moods and thoughts and take note of anything that makes you feel good or bad.
  • Take time for yourself — even if it’s only half an hour — each day. Go somewhere quiet and relax, go for a walk, or do something you enjoy.
  • Stay active and exercise — join a group exercise class like yoga or pilates, or do your own class at home using a rented DVD or online session. Exercise can help you to relax and sleep better. Just going for a walk or doing 5 minutes of yoga or stretching at home can be relaxing. Getting outside in the fresh air and sunlight can help to regulate your mood.
  • Do something enjoyable — have your friends around, watch a movie, or do something else that’s fun to lighten your mood.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs — these can have a negative impact on your mental health.

Where can I get help?

If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start.

Your doctor can help you by creating a mental health treatment plan, if necessary. Medicare rebates are available for sessions with mental health professionals. Your doctor can also prescribe medicines for depression or anxiety, if appropriate.

It can be hard to take the first step of reaching out to your doctor — here are some tips for talking to your doctor about mental health.

All conversations with your doctor are private and they will keep your health information confidential.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

If you’d like to find out more or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:

  • MindSpot (anyone suffering from anxiety or depression) — call 1800 61 44 34.
  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by depression and extreme mood swings) — online help.
  • Lifeline (anyone experiencing a crisis or thinking about suicide) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.
  • ReachOut (online mental health services for young people and their parents)
  • Headspace (mental health information, group chat, and online communities
  • SANE Australia (mental health information, peer support and counselling support)
  • MensLine Australia (telephone and online counselling service)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resources

  • Headspace (Yarn safe - Mental health and wellbeing)
  • Beyond Blue (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2021

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