Anxiety can occur for any reason and no reason at all. Anxiety often comes without warning and may not be something you can expect or control. But there are also things that can make your anxiety worse - anxiety triggers that make it more likely that you'll experience anxiety, panic, and a host of other anxiety-related conditions.
Below, we'll discuss the basics of anxiety triggers and provide common examples of anxiety triggering events.
What Are Your Anxiety Triggers?
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Different Types of Anxiety Have Different "Triggers"
Every type of anxiety is different. The triggers of obsessive-compulsive disorder are unwanted thoughts. The triggers of panic disorder are often physical sensations (which we'll get to in a moment). Knowing your triggers is useful, but knowing more about your disorder is even better. Take my free 7-minute anxiety test to get an individualized anxiety profile.
Triggers vs. Causes
There is also a difference between a trigger of anxiety and a cause of anxiety. A cause of anxiety is something that caused your anxiety disorder to be a part of you. For example, your upbringing and genetics are causes of your anxiety. Triggers are issues that make your anxiety worse or more prevalent.
Not everyone that deals with anxiety disorders experience them every day. Some people get breaks, and others deal with more manageable anxiety that can occasionally get worse. This anxiety may have "triggers" which essentially pick the anxiety disorder back up again and cause it to have more impact in your life, often becoming harder to manage.
Natural Triggers of Anxiety
There are also several natural, understandable triggers of anxiety. A stressful job, for example, is a common natural anxiety trigger. Long-term, persistent stress can make it very hard to cope with life, and that can create long-term anxiety issues. Living with cancer or a disease can also create anxiety, as can trouble with your relationships or social life. These types of anxiety triggers are very common and may create anxiety in the short or long term.
Invisible Triggers of Anxiety
The best place to start is with the invisible triggers of anxiety. Invisible triggers are possible triggers that you may not even know is happening. A great example is clutter. Some people (not all) start to experience much more anxiety when their homes have more clutter because they associated cleanliness with control. That's an invisible anxiety trigger, because the person may not even be aware that their home is affecting them until it's cleaned. Other invisible triggers include:
- Too Much Time to Think Most people think that alone time is healthy. _Some_ alone time is healthy, but too much alone time creates further anxiety. Anxiety changes thought processes to make them more negative, which means when you have too much time to think, your thoughts may veer towards stressful ones, triggering more anxiety. Ideally, fun activities and mental distractions are helpful.
- Lack of Goal Setting The mind and body often need certain emotions to stay sane. Accomplishment and the idea that you're working towards something are a valuable tool for keeping your anxiety at bay. If you're not goal setting and letting each day pass without a plan, you may find that you stop thinking about the future, and that can put you too much in the present.
- Health and News The media has changed the culture of anxiety. They often report on young deaths, dangers, and lawsuits that can all create a feeling of discomfort and fear that may trigger an increase in anxiety levels. A great example was an article about the dangers of MRSA - a deadly infection that is immune to most medications - where doctors wrote the biggest danger of MRSA wasn't the disease itself, but rather public fear over the disease. Media can create fears and stress where they weren't before, and this may lead to persistent anxiety.
- Loss of Coping Anxiety may also be triggered by a loss of coping ability, often due to replacement coping. This is an incredibly common problem with those that abuse drugs or alcohol but may affect those that party or do reckless behaviors to cure stress. These behaviors are coping replacements, and unfortunately, natural stress coping is a "use it or lose it" type of ability. If you replace your coping ability with these types of negative behaviors, you risk losing your mental ability to cope with stress and anxiety may be the result.
- Anxious Thoughts Certain anxious thoughts may also trigger greater amounts of anxiety. Anxiety causes anxious thoughts in general, so often this affects those that have already been struggling with mild anxiety. But in some cases, if the thought was particularly distressing, it may trigger an incredible increase in anxiety that cascades out of control.
The invisible triggers of anxiety can be very complex, because they may also be based on your previous life experience. If you grew up with strict parents, for example, you may develop anxiety when you do behaviors they would not have approved of simply because your mind and body are used to anxiety when these behaviors occurred. That's why upbringing and life experiences play such a complex role in anxiety.
Triggers of Panic Attacks
Anxiety is a condition that often develops gradually, and it's not that common for one item to simply trigger an increase in anxiety that's pronounced enough to matter. The same is not true for anxiety attacks, where various issues can trigger anxiety attacks with some regularity.
Panic attacks are so unusual that they can be caused by fear of panic attacks - or simply by thinking about your panic attacks. They can be caused by exercise, by dehydration, and by nothing at all. The first panic attack often comes at a time of considerable stress, but some people have been known to get their first panic attack for no apparent reason. Once that first panic attack occurs, common triggers include:
- Chest pains
- Heart palpitations (rapid heartbeat that you can feel)
- Trouble taking a deep breath
- Oversensitivity to physical sensations
- Health fears
Some people still get panic attacks when they're under extreme stress. But most people develop what's known as "hypersensitivity," where they notice every single feeling and change in their body (including those that other people don't notice or shrug off) and experience a flood of anxiety when these sensations occur, ultimately leading to a panic attack.
These types of triggers can also be exacerbated by health fears. For example, someone without anxiety gets a bug bite and passes it off as a bug bite. Someone with panic attacks gets a bug bite and wonders if they have an infection or serious disease, to the point where they may even need to see the doctor.
They also get more "in touch" with their muscles, heart, and body, so that automatic processes become less automatic, thus triggering anxiety as though a health problem is occurring. For example, sometimes those with panic attacks start to find walking more difficult, because their normally automatic movements (using their legs) are more conscious than normal, and that consciousness makes them harder to move since each muscle movement needs to be thought of.
Panic attack triggers are notoriously broad, often related to feelings, and very difficult to control.
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How to Relieve Anxiety Triggers
Anxiety triggers can be tough to control. Each trigger will have its own potential treatment, and the only way to prevent all anxiety triggers is to re-learn coping strategies and cure your anxiety. Some example treatments include:
- Trigger Prevention One of the easiest ways is to simply live a life that's focused on trigger prevention. Healthy living, with exercise, will reduce health fears. Avoiding media will reduce random life anxiety. There are countless examples of ways that you can address individual fears in order to reduce the likelihood of triggering anxiety.
- Trigger Desensitization Another thing you can try is desensitization. It's a term used to describe purposely doing a trigger so often that it no longer causes anxiety. For example, if you get anxiety when you have a specific thought, then purposely have the thought so often that it no longer causes fear. The mind is very adaptive, and one of the reason thoughts and things cause distress is because the mind fights it away rather than gets used to them.
- Trigger Acknowledgement When you do experience an anxiety trigger, try to learn to notice the fact that your anxiety increases. Explore whether or not it's rational and pay attention to your symptoms. You can often reduce anxiety by simply stopping the trigger from cascading into worse anxiety. This level of mindfulness can be difficult to practice but possibly very valuable.
In the end, though, the key to reducing anxiety triggers is to stop the anxiety overall.
I've worked with hundreds of people that have some common and rare triggers of anxiety. Start by taking my free 7-minute anxiety test. Learn more about your anxiety along with tools that can be used to treat it.
Raghunathan, Rajagopal, Michel T. Pham, and Kim P. Corfman. Informational properties of anxiety and sadness, and displaced coping. Journal of Consumer Research 32.4 (2006): 596-601.
Ehlers, Anke, et al. Selective processing of threat cues in subjects with panic attacks. Cognition & Emotion 2.3 (1988): 201-219.
Pauli, Paul, et al. Anxiety induced by cardiac perceptions in patients with panic attacks: A field study. Behaviour research and therapy 29.2 (1991): 137-145.
Griez, Eric, et al. Specific sensitivity of patients with panic attacks to carbon dioxide inhalation. Psychiatry Research 31.2 (1990): 193-199.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Dec 05, 2017.