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Everyone experiences unprovoked anxiety at times. Your nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response based on perceived threats – but sometimes, it misreads harmless situations as dangerous.
When your body reacts strongly, yet you can’t pinpoint an obvious trigger, it may seem like anxiety has arisen randomly. Many people could be unaware of their triggers and believe they have become anxious for no reason.
In reality, there is usually a reason why you are anxious, even if you cannot determine what it is. Subtle factors like genetics, past traumas, medications, or physical health issues could be sparking symptoms.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion that is characterized by feelings of worry, fear, and tension. For some, anxiety can become so intense that it causes panic attacks and extreme physical symptoms such as chest pain.
Anxiety has evolved as an alarm bell to move us into life-saving action. The limbic parts of our brains, which are some of the most ancient structures deep inside the brain, help us react to dangers in the environment.
The limbic system helps to activate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which helps to make the body and mind react quickly when we are in perceived danger – we can choose to fight, flight, or freeze.
In the modern world, we encounter conflicts that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, but our nervous system will still react as if there is actual danger so that we can react to a variety of stimuli with the fight, flight or freeze response.
What are some common anxiety triggers?
Anxiety triggers can vary significantly among individuals, and many people may have multiple triggers that provoke different degrees of anxiety.
However, research has identified some frequent triggers that commonly spur anxiety symptoms:
- Stressful life events – Events like losing a job, financial hardship, relationship problems, or other difficult life changes can trigger anxiety by causing uncertainty and upheaval. A 2009 study found that stressors such as health and family fall-outs predicted increases in anxiety sensitivity (McLaughlin & Hatzenbuehler, 2009).
- Medical conditions – Chronic health issues, such as thyroid disorders, heart problems, or asthma, can worsen anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, signs of anxiety can be aggravated by some physical health conditions (NIMH, 2023).
- Medications – Substances like caffeine, nicotine, recreational drugs, and certain prescription medications may provoke anxiety as a side effect. A 2022 study found that a dose of roughly 5 cups of coffee induced panic attacks in many people with panic disorder, as well as higher anxiety levels in these individuals (Klevebrant & Frick, 2022).
- Genetics – Having a family history of anxiety disorders increases genetic risk. A meta-analysis found anxiety disorders had an estimated heritability of around 30% to 50% (Hettema et al. 2001).
- Trauma – Past traumatic experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), causing anxiety and panic attacks when triggered. Childhood trauma specifically elevates anxiety disorder risk later in life, according to a 2021 review (Kuzminskaite et al. 2021).
- Chronic stress – Daily stressors and worry about work, relationships, finances, and other issues can sustain high anxiety levels. A 2017 study found that repeated exposure to short-term stressors can lead to maladaptive stress responses, increasing the risk for anxiety disorders (Patriquin & Mathew, 2017).
- Insufficient sleep – Lack of quality sleep deprives the body of vital recovery and rejuvenation needed to regulate anxiety levels. A 2016 systematic review noted insufficient sleep duration significantly increased anxiety risk (Pires et al. 2016).
Identifying individual triggers through methods like journaling can help pinpoint the causes of anxiety. Discussing patterns with a mental health professional can also provide insight into personalized triggers and effective coping strategies.
It can be important to find out what is causing you anxiety as this is an important step in managing it.
How Can You Identify Anxiety Triggers?
A useful way of identifying triggers of anxiety can be to start a journal. This can be used to document your moods each day and see if any patterns of anxiety emerge.
If patterns are noticed, it can be easier to pinpoint what may be causing the anxiety. If you find it challenging to identify triggers and your anxiety is causing you distress, you can work with a therapist to help explore what may be causing your anxiety.
A specialist may use talk therapy, among other methods, to help find the causes of your anxious feelings.
Is Some Anxiety Normal?
Everyone feels anxious from time to time, and nearly everyone has experienced some level of anxiety before. Anxiety is a normal human reaction to many situations, especially in times of stress.
It is also normal to want to get rid of anxiety altogether since it feels uncomfortable.
However, getting rid of anxiety can be counterproductive, and it can make people more anxious.
Having some anxiety shouldn’t be seen as something threatening at all. In fact, having some anxiety can be useful.
Having anxious feelings may stop people from engaging in risky behaviors as well as giving someone an idea about how they feel about certain situations. For instance, if you are nervous about attending a job interview or going on a first date, this may give you an indication that these experiences are important to you.
If you do not feel some anxiety before a first date, you may not feel obliged to make an effort with the other person. Likewise, some anxiety before a job interview might make you more alert and improve your performance.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, more people were feeling anxious about their health, contracting the virus, their families becoming seriously ill, and about being around others.
All these anxieties are very normal considering the circumstances.
What Is Free-Floating Anxiety?
Free-floating anxiety describes feelings of discomfort, uneasiness, worry, and anxiety that can appear for seemingly no reason. Many times, this anxiety can feel generalized or even random and does not appear to be tied to any particular object or situation.
Free-floating anxiety can be experienced by those with anxiety disorders and those without. Some people can experience free-floating anxiety even when they believe things are going really well in all aspects of their life.
People with free-floating anxiety can spend so much time preoccupied with these general feelings of unease and worry that they have a difficult time enjoying their lives and experience lower levels of overall life enjoyment and happiness.
Feelings of this anxiety can also contribute to other problems such as depression, headaches, social withdrawal, substance misuse, and relationship problems.
How To Reduce Anxiety
While we may feel inclined to want to stop all feelings of anxiety, it is important to remember that some anxiety is normal and helpful in certain situations.
Trying to stop anxious feelings is a form of resistance and can, in fact, make anxiety stronger. This relates to ironic processing theory, which explains why it is so hard to decrease unwanted thoughts.
The theory states that when we try not to think of something, such as being anxious, this will only lead to thinking more about being anxious, which leads to more anxiety.
When we try not to think of something, one part of our mind avoids the thought, but another part ‘checks in’ every so often to ensure the thought is not coming up – ironically, bringing it to mind.
If your only strategy is to distract yourself from the anxiety or to avoid anything that may trigger it, you are likely to always be afraid of it, and this can contribute to the vicious cycle of anxiety. Instead, you could try some of the following methods to ease some of your anxiety:
Accept the feeling and don’t try to ‘fix it’
One of the most effective ways to ease anxiety is to accept it when the feeling comes. When the anxiety is allowed to run its course in the moment, without trying to resist it, it should eventually reduce.
We often have this drive to try to find a solution to a problem. So, when faced with anxious feelings, we feel a responsibility to try to ‘fix it’. However, oftentimes the best approach is to allow the feelings to run their course.
Cherelle Roberts, a Health Anxiety Therapist, explains one of the main ways to deal with anxiety that we cannot always control:
“The biggest thing of all is we learn to sit and wait and deal with the uncertainty… You have to work on your impulsive need to problem-solve”
Recognizing and understanding where the anxiety is coming from can also be helpful.
For instance, you could say to yourself:
- ‘My nervous system is getting into gear because I am worried about a social event.’ or
- ‘I am feeling anxious about the health of my loved one. This is a normal response. There is nothing that I, specifically, can do to fix it, but I can offer my support in other ways.’
Give yourself reassurance
When you start to feel anxious, remind yourself, “I have coped with anxiety successfully in the past, and I can handle this, too.” Think back to previous times you have experienced nervousness or panic yet still carried on and accomplished your goals.
For example, perhaps you have shown up to work on time even when stressed about traffic delays. Or have once given a presentation at school despite intense pre-speech anxiety.
Reassure yourself that if you could survive those past anxious episodes, you have evidence this current anxiety won’t overwhelm you either.
Visualize yourself coping well in the situation causing you anxiety. Recall the relief you felt afterwards too – anxiety is temporary and fades. Reassure yourself that you can navigate this anxiety as well; it will pass. Self-compassion is key.
It is useful to challenge your anxious thoughts when they emerge. You can ask yourself the following questions:
- ‘On a scale of 1-100, how likely is it that the thing I am anxious about will happen?’;
- ‘Do I have good reason to think that something will go wrong?’;
- ‘Is there any actual danger here?’;
- ‘Is there a chance I am overly worried?’
Talk to someone you trust
It can help to share your anxieties with a friend or family member that you trust.
Another person can help to put everything into perspective and help you to challenge your anxious thoughts if you struggle to do this on your own.
Redirect anxious energy
Anxiety creates an excess of nervous energy in the body. When you start to feel particularly anxious or antsy, try redirecting that energy into productive activities.
Going for a brisk walk, jogging, or engaging in other cardiovascular exercises can help metabolize the adrenaline and cortisol flooding your system. The aerobic activity burns through the hormones, exacerbating your anxiety.
You could also channel nervous energy by tackling a long-put-off cleaning project at home. Scrub the floors, organize cluttered spaces, or polish furniture. The physical motions can provide an outlet for anxiety while also giving you a sense of accomplishment afterward.
Schedule the worries
It may be useful to schedule a small portion of time in the day dedicated to allowing your ‘worry time’.
For instance, you could schedule to worry for 15 minutes at 4 pm, but if the anxious thoughts come outside of this time, gently tell the thoughts to come back at another scheduled time.
You may find that by the time your worry time comes, you are not so anxious anymore; it was not worth the time to worry about, or you forgot about it completely.
Make an exposure hierarchy
A common technique used in exposure therapy is making an exposure hierarchy. This is something you could incorporate for yourself in a safe manner.
You can first make a goal of what you want to achieve but currently makes you too anxious to accomplish.
You can then write down small steps you can take to help gradually expose yourself to the anxiety-provoking situation.
You start with the easiest step first, and then once you feel comfortable, you move up through the hierarchy until you feel confident to reach your goal.
This technique can work well for some types of anxious feelings, such as feelings of social anxiety.
Imagine you are feeling socially anxious about giving a presentation for your university assignment. Using an exposure hierarchy, you can work through this anxiety one step at a time:
- Start by practicing the presentation to yourself
- Next, practice the presentation while recording yourself
- Then, practice in front of a trusted person such as a family member or good friend
- Finally, present to the audience of your assignment
The idea is that if you can manage at each step preceding the main goal, you should feel reduced anxious feelings by the time you get there.
It can also be helpful to rate your anxiety levels on a scale of 0-10 at each point of the hierarchy. You can continue to repeat certain stages until your anxiety rating is lowered.
But don’t expect your anxiety to rate at 0 before moving on because, remember, some level of anxiety is completely normal and expected.
Break the cycle of anxiety
Reducing anxiety completely and immediately is not realistic, but you can start breaking the ‘vicious cycle’ of anxiety.
“By taking a kind of small step initially and starting to approach some of the situations that you’re only a little bit anxious about we can build your confidence in your coping we can start to challenge some of these fears, and the anxiety is gonna come down.”
Centre for Clinical Interventions
As you gradually expose yourself to situations that make you anxious, you can expect a spike in anxious feelings initially (e.g., physical sensations such as increased heart rate).
Use coping strategies such as deep, focused breathing and accepting the feelings to manage the initial panic or worry.
As you succeed in managing anxiety in this scenario, your confidence and willingness to tackle the next challenge should rise.
Realizing that the worst-case scenario rarely happens will, over time, reduce the power those anxieties have over you.
Amanda gets incredibly nervous about speaking up in work meetings for fear of being judged or people noticing how nervous she is.
The last time she knew she had to speak up in a meeting, she called in sick to avoid it. Although avoiding the meeting provided temporary relief, it reinforced her anxiety, keeping the vicious cycle going.
Amanda can start to gain confidence by taking small steps in meetings such as asking a question or making a brief comment. The first few times may increase the physical symptoms of anxiety, but over time, the sensations will lessen.
Amanda comes to realize that most people are not focused on her delivery, but the content.
The Centre for Clinical Intervention has an information sheet on the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety.
Meditation and mindfulness
Relaxation exercises such as meditation and mindfulness can be useful for helping to notice anxious thoughts and any other physical sensations and where they may be coming from.
Mindfulness practice involves paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity, and non-judgment, allowing for greater awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts, feelings, and surroundings.
There is evidence that these practices can strengthen mental control and may help people avoid unwanted thoughts.
When does anxiety need treatment?
Although anxiety is normal, if it gets to a point where it feels like it is getting out of hand and you have been unsuccessful in trying to decrease it yourself, it may be time to seek help.
Some other signs that may indicate that you may need treatment:
Constant or nearly constant anxiety
The anxiety is disrupting your normal daily functioning
Anxiety about things that don’t threaten you
You are experiencing panic attacks
Complications occur in other aspects of life, such as substance abuse, isolation, breakdowns in relationships, and struggling at school or work.
Your anxiety may qualify as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) if any of the following symptoms occur:
Worrying excessively about many things at once or shifting between different topics.
You have felt anxious, more often than not, for six or more months at a time.
You feel out of control, or like you cannot handle the stress of your anxiety.
A persistent feeling of anxiety or dread that interferes with how you live your life.
And the anxiety occurs with at least 3 of the following symptoms:
Restlessness or irritability
Feeling fatigued often or getting tired easily
Difficulty concentrating or blanking out
Sore or achy muscles
Difficulty falling or staying asleep
Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
What treatment options are there for anxiety disorders?
Depending on the severity of the anxiety, there are many treatment options available that can be effective in helping the symptoms.
To treat severe anxiety and anxiety disorders, there are some medications that can be taken to relax some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension and stomach cramping.
Benzodiazepines are the main class of medications used for treating anxiety. Some examples of benzodiazepines are:
These medications are very strong and so are not always recommended to take long-term. They have side effects such as causing high dependence and can be abused.
Other medications, such as antidepressants, are medications that are thought to be more tolerable so that they can be taken long-term.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which affect serotonin levels in the brain, are a frequent choice for many. Some SSRIs that can be prescribed include:
SSRIs can take a few weeks to begin working and they can also have some side effects such as nausea, dry mouth, or some suicidal thoughts, specifically when beginning to take the medication.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a possible treatment for anxiety disorders.
CBT helps people identify their unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors with the therapist, then work together to challenge and restructure these into healthier and positive thoughts and behaviors.
In CBT, individuals can set goals that they want to work on, problem-solve, and practice new skills with the therapist.
Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of CBT that focuses on identifying negative or destructive thoughts and feelings. The individual can then actively challenge those thoughts and consider rational, realistic ones.
Another type of CBT is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy which combines CBT with meditation. This type of therapy helps cultivate a non-judgemental, present-oriented attitude which is referred to as mindfulness.
Exposure therapy is a technique used to gradually expose someone to a situation they fear. With the therapist, the individual can gradually challenge themselves to enter anxiety-provoking situations and learn relaxation techniques to practice during the exposure.
This is a useful technique to challenge anxious thoughts and to demonstrate that the outcome of situations is probably not as bad as what they initially believed it to be.
Do you need mental health support?
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Contact the Samaritans for support and assistance from a trained counselor: https://www.samaritans.org/; email email@example.com .
Available 24 hours day, 365 days a year (this number is FREE to call):
Rethink Mental Illness: rethink.org
0300 5000 927
Government of Western Australia. (n.d.). The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety. Centre for Clinical Interventions. Retrieved 2021, October 12, from: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental-Health-Professionals/Panic/Panic—Information-Sheets/Panic-Information-Sheet—03—The-Vicious-Cycle-of-Anxiety.pdf
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