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Can a brain tumor be mistaken for anxiety?

It is possible for a brain tumor to be mistaken for anxiety or other mental health issues. Some of the symptoms of a brain tumor, especially those affecting mood, behavior, and cognition, can overlap with symptoms of anxiety disorders and other psychiatric conditions. However, a brain tumor will also eventually cause more distinctive symptoms like seizures, vision problems, or speech difficulties that point to a neurological cause.

What are the symptoms of a brain tumor that could be confused with anxiety?

Some of the early symptoms of a brain tumor that may resemble anxiety include:

  • Feeling nervous or excessively worried
  • Feeling tense or on edge
  • Panic attacks
  • Obsessive thinking or compulsive behaviors
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating, confusion, memory loss

The part of the brain where the tumor is located often determines the symptoms. For example, a tumor in the frontal lobe may cause changes in emotions, behavior, personality and impulse control that could be confused with a psychiatric disorder. A tumor in the temporal lobe may lead to memory loss and difficulty learning and processing information.

Why might a brain tumor be mistaken for anxiety?

There are a few reasons why a brain tumor could be mistaken for anxiety or a mental health issue, especially early on:

  • Many of the neurological symptoms like mood changes mimic psychiatric conditions.
  • The symptoms are often subtle at first and worsen gradually.
  • People are quick to blame psychological issues for things like mood changes.
  • Symptoms like fatigue and headaches are nonspecific.
  • The person may be young and otherwise healthy.

Additionally, anxiety is much more common than brain tumors, so that may be the first consideration. The rate of brain tumors is about 27 per 100,000 people annually, while up to 30% of people will struggle with an anxiety disorder.

How are brain tumors eventually distinguished from anxiety?

While the early symptoms may be vague, eventually with a brain tumor more distinctive symptoms tend to develop that indicate something neurological is going on. These can help distinguish a brain tumor from anxiety or a mental health disorder:

  • Seizures, tremors, loss of coordination
  • One-sided weakness or numbness
  • Vision problems like blurred or double vision
  • Hearing loss
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Cognitive decline and confusion
  • Severe, persistent headaches, especially upon waking up

The development of any of these neurological signs and symptoms, or a worsening pattern of symptoms, warrants medical evaluation. Imaging tests like an MRI or CT scan of the brain can detect a brain tumor.

Table 1: Distinguishing Symptoms of Brain Tumor vs. Anxiety

Brain Tumor Anxiety Disorder
Seizures Panic attacks
One-sided weakness Fatigue
Vision changes Difficulty concentrating
Gradual worsening of symptoms Symptoms may fluctuate in severity

Can anxiety be a symptom of a brain tumor?

Yes, anxiety can be one of the symptoms caused by a brain tumor. Just as a tumor can mimic psychiatric disorders, it can also directly cause anxiety and other mental health effects due to the pressure and damage to parts of the brain involved in regulating mood and behavior.

Some brain tumors even secrete hormones or neurotransmitters that influence emotions, thoughts and behaviors. For example, catecholamine-secreting tumors can lead to anxiety symptoms. Serotonin-producing tumors called cerebral neuroblastomas are another rare tumor that can cause anxiety and depression.

So in some cases, a brain tumor could actually be the underlying cause of otherwise unexplained anxiety.


In summary, a brain tumor sometimes may initially be mistaken for anxiety or a mental health issue because some of the early symptoms like anxiety, mood changes and behavioral abnormalities can overlap. However, a brain tumor will also cause neurological symptoms like seizures and vision loss that eventually distinguish it from anxiety or other psychiatric disorders. If anxiety is worsening and accompanied by other concerning symptoms, it warrants an evaluation by a medical doctor to rule out an underlying brain tumor or other neurological cause. But the vast majority of time, anxiety is caused by stress and mental health conditions, not an underlying medical issue.