Introduction to Situational Anxiety Disorder

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Introduction to Situational Anxiety Disorder

The term situational anxiety disorder is often mistakenly used to refer to a condition better known as generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, for short. There is no medically recognized disorder known as situational anxiety disorder. But there are two different anxiety issues that situational anxiety disorder may be confused with:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Situational Phobias

This article will describe generalized anxiety disorder how to recognize it, what it is caused by, and effective methods that can be used to overcome it. It will also touch on the idea of situational phobias.

Signs of Trouble - The Symptoms of GAD

Often when someone refers to situational anxiety disorder, they are referring instead to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is a disorder characterized by excessive, uncontrollable anxiety triggered by numerous and varying stimuli, rather than a singular stimulus. The anxiety can be exacerbated by the symptoms of the anxiety itself. Pay attention to symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Edginess
  • Muscle tension
  • Muscle (particularly chest) aches
  • Tension headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue

The vicious cycle of anxiety causing symptoms that cause further anxiety is, in part, why this disorder is so difficult to overcome or control.

When the above symptoms persist with regularity over a period of at least 6 months in such a way that is disruptive to your life, keeping you from doing the things you want or need to do and causing you undue psychological distress, you may have generalized anxiety disorder.

The Reasons Underlying Your Anxiety

Anxiety isn't something that can be easily pinpointed to any one specific cause. Anxiety often is affected by multiple factors - so many, in fact, that figuring out what initially lead to anxiety may be impossible. Still, persistent and situational anxiety can be caused by multiple factors, including:

  • First, generalized anxiety often has to do with your personal beliefs and thought patterns surrounding the situations and objects you encounter in your daily life. Problematic thinking patterns and way of interpreting your experiences can lead to anxiety and negative emotional states more generally. Figuring out precisely what these problematic beliefs and thought patterns are may require the assistance of a therapist.
  • Second, you may be making lifestyle choices that cause you stress, or finding yourself in stressful situations more often than is healthy. Examples include drinking too much caffeine, the use of drugs or alcohol, unhealthy lifestyle choices or putting too much pressure on yourself to perform. These are also issues that a therapist can help you to recognize and deal with, but can also be discovered through meditation and self-reflection. They can be positively affected by lifestyle changes you make yourself once you recognize the factors in your life that are causing you stress.
  • Third, your brain may be experiencing a chemical imbalance. This may be inherited, due to natural hormonal shifts or linked to an accompanying psychological disorder such as depression; or it may be the result of the factors listed above. Scientists aren’t exactly sure whether chemical imbalances cause anxiety disorders or whether anxiety disorders lead to chemical imbalances, but it’s clear that the two are closely interlinked.

Chemical imbalances linked to anxiety are typically characterized by lowered levels of the chemical known as serotonin. Serotonin is linked to feelings of relaxation and happiness. Some people are born with naturally low levels of serotonin, and others develop an imbalance over time, possible as a result of the above factors.

In such cases, you’re more likely to experience the effects of stress and less likely to benefit from the effects of chemicals such as serotonin. Essentially, this perpetuates the cycle of stress and anxiety. Increasing serotonin levels in the body can be achieved chemically, by way of prescription drugs or supplements, or it can be achieved by making healthy lifestyle changes.

Stress Solutions

While it is going to be important for you to spend some time either thinking about your life situation or consulting with a professional who can help you pinpoint your personal underlying anxiety causes, the following stress solutions are activities that most people find useful in lowering their general stress levels.

  • Get Your Body Moving Whether you interpret this as going dancing, heading for the swimming pool, going to gym or taking the dog for a walk around the block, getting active may help to raise your body's serotonin levels. The more serotonin in your body, the more relaxed you feel, and the less likely you are to experience anxiety. Regular exercise is a great way to retrain your body and brain to feel good. Though it may take a few sessions before your muscles adapt, the key is not to give up after the first try and to choose an exercise that you enjoy doing. As long as you are moving your body and getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes at least 3 times a week, your body may soon look better, feel better and function better, reducing your anxiety threefold.
  • Discover Healthy Recipes Eating healthy can sound like a pain when you think of it regarding just spinach and carrots, but healthy foods can be a lot more diverse and delicious than that: just ask the internet, or your vegan and/or vegetarian friends. When you eat healthy foods that taste good and provide your body with adequate nutrition, your anxiety may improve as a result. This is thought to because of the link between healthy gut bacteria and serotonin - meaning that the right diet can balance your bacteria in your stomach that facilitate the production of serotonin. Specific foods that are good for naturally restoring serotonin in the body include bananas, walnuts, green vegetable and foods that are high in complex carbohydrates (e.g. rye bread, sweet potatoes, peas and grains), though you should bear in mind that too many carbohydrates can be unhealthy for some people.
  • Sleep On It If you don't have good sleeping habits, you probably aren't sleeping regularly or well enough, which can cause or worsen anxiety problems. Sleep is the time when your body recharges, and if you are an anxious person, this period of recharging is vital to your wellbeing. Your muscles get to relax, your brain gets a rest from worrying and your cells get to regenerate and essentially create a new and improved you to deal with life the following day. Good sleep habits involve getting to bed at a regular time (even if you literally just lay down at the same time every day), sleeping with all electronics turned off and all distracting lights off or covered up, and trying to avoid both caffeine and light-emitting screens (including T.V, phones and laptops) for at least an hour before bedtime. It may also help you to drink a decaf tea such as chamomile every night as part of a relaxation ritual to help your brain to learn when it's time to relax.

Most unhealthy lifestyle choices are self-evident and are fairly easy to replace with healthy ones with the effect of decreasing your anxiety. If you find that your anxiety is not decreased enough by adopting a healthier lifestyle, it is best to talk to your therapist about other options and/or medical solutions that may be right for you.

Situational Phobia

Several years after this article was published, we received an email from a psychologist that noted that some phobias are described as "situational anxiety." Examples include anxiety triggered by hearing someone making vomiting noises, certain types of heights, airplanes, and others that are more "situation specific."

While these experiences may not be termed "situational anxiety disorder," it is possible that someone with "situational anxiety" is experiencing anxiety as a result of a situational phobia.

For those that may have anxiety from situational phobias, we recommend you review our exposure therapy page. There you will find a specific strategy for overcoming situational phobias.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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