Anxiety is a mental health condition that shows up as fear, uncontrollable worry, racing thoughts, and various physical symptoms. While anxiety can relate to a variety of life areas, there are certain things that can spike or trigger anxiety. The first step in coping with anxiety is to identify your personal triggers, and then make a plan to manage your triggers.
What Triggers Anxiety?
What triggers anxiety largely depends on what type of anxiety you struggle with, and what stressors are present in your life. Triggers can include habits, life events, and various stressors that feel out of your control. These can cause people to feel symptoms of anxiety such as tension, uncontrollable worry, racing thoughts, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Unmanaged anxiety triggers can also cause panic attacks and more severe symptoms and conditions.
Here are 17 common triggers for anxiety:
Caffeine can be a helpful tool to energize us in the morning, but too much caffeine can act as a trigger to induce or worsen anxiety. Research shows that people who experience panic disorder and social anxiety are particularly prone to negative impacts of too much caffeine, but too much caffeine can negatively impact any person who struggles with anxiety.1
2. Lack of Sleep
The brain and body impact each other’s functioning, and sleep impacts mental health. Not getting enough sleep, or not getting quality sleep can have a major impact on our emotional wellbeing and mood, including triggering and worsening anxiety.2 A lack of sleep increases irritability, difficulty concentrating, and overall stress levels, because our bodies and brains haven’t gotten adequate rest.
3. Unbalanced Diet/Skipping Meals
According to a recent 2019 study, not getting proper nutrition can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.3 Not eating a balanced diet means that your brain and body don’t have the fuel needed to function properly, which can increase anxiety. Skipping meals can also act as an anxiety trigger, because a drop in blood sugar puts our body into fight-or-flight mode, which is our body’s natural anxiety response.
Medications are meant to help you feel better, but a number of prescription and over-the-counter medications can trigger anxiety. Some anxiety-producing medications include:
- Nasal decongestants
- Thyroid medications
Of course, this will not be everyone’s experience with these medications, but for some people some of the time, medications can increase anxiety.
Not taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional needs can produce anxiety. As you neglect your needs, over time, you could start feeling hopeless, worthless, or high levels of guilt and shame. These effects could lead to high stress and anxiety as it feels nearly impossible to overcome the negative spiral you’ve been in.
6. Work Environment
Sometimes the environments we find ourselves in can act as a trigger for anxiety. Work environments often include responsibilities that can increase our stress and anxiety levels. Outside of work responsibilities, the interpersonal nature of a workplace can sometimes also act as an anxiety trigger, particularly if it’s a toxic work environment that doesn’t feel safe for our brains and bodies to stay in.
7. Health Issues
Receiving a health diagnosis that is surprising or difficult, particularly if it’s a chronic illness, can introduce anxiety or worsen anxiety that was already there. Anxiety is often fueled by a sense of worry about bad things happening or feeling out of control, and a significant health issue can bring up these worries and contribute to anxiety levels. Other medical issues such as hyperthyroidism can directly lead to anxiety because of their physiological effects on the body.
8. Social Events
For some people, attending social events can feel like it recharges their batteries, for people who struggle with social anxiety, these same events can feel draining and downright debilitating. Some people are not naturally equipped with the social skills to navigate social events, and they may internally worry about what other people are thinking about them while in these situations. This fear of judgment and negative self-talk can spike anxiety and make it difficult to join and stay in social settings.
Arguments and disagreements increase stress that can trigger or worsen anxiety, whether they’re with a romantic partner, a friend, a family member, or a neighbor. Conflict naturally results in some level of fight, flight, or freeze response for most people; however, relational conflict can be particularly anxiety-inducing if you aren’t used to managing conflict resolutions in a healthy way, or if you have negative perceptions about conflict.
10. Financial Concerns
Considering that money is a necessary tool to ensure our needs are met, it’s understandable that financial stress can trigger or worsen anxiety. Financial anxieties could include savings, struggling with debt, or receiving unexpected bills. Because finances determine whether we can meet our needs, financial concerns can trigger anxiety because they also trigger our survival instincts.
11. Public Performances
Public speaking, giving a presentation at work, or participation in a competition commonly trigger anxiety and stage fright because we’re in a position to be seen, judged and rejected by other people. In fact, some experts estimate that up to 77% of people struggle with some level of anxiety related to public speaking making this an extremely common anxiety trigger.4
12. Upcoming Exams
Tests often carry heavy influence over final grades, success in applying for programs, or for progression within a career. Because our brain sees tests and exams as crucial performance moments, it’s easy to get caught in a pattern of negative “what if” thinking related to test outcomes. This negative rumination and pressure can trigger and increase anxiety.
13. A Messy Home Environment
A messy or cluttered home can trigger or worsen a person’s anxiety, and this doesn’t always directly relate to whether a person experiences obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Frequently seeing messiness sits in the back of our mind and is a constant reminder of tasks on our mental “to-do” list. Consciously or subconsciously feeling like we’re never “done” with a to-do list because of clutter can trigger or worsen anxiety.
14. Life Transitions
Experiencing a major life change or transition can trigger or increase anxiety, especially if that transition was unexpected. Life transitions can include becoming a parent, losing a loved one, or getting a new job. These often include taking on new responsibilities and roles, and some level of adjusting to a new identity, which can impact anxiety levels.
15. Negative Self-Talk
Our thought patterns can play a major role in our physical and mental wellbeing, particularly if we’re used to talking to ourselves negatively. Negative self-talk can be a root cause of developing anxiety and anxiety symptoms, and it can also be a key factor in maintaining anxiety.5
16. Stress Levels
Everyday stressors, such as traffic jams or waiting in a long grocery line can spike stress and anxiety levels. Toxic stress, such as having too many responsibilities for too long or taking care of a sick family member, can keep our body in fight or flight mode for extended periods of time, which also typically contributes to an increase of anxiety over time.
17. Personal Triggers
These can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, but personal triggers often make you remember a stressful or traumatic event in your past. This can include sights, sounds, smells, a place, or even a sensation. While these personal triggers can escalate or worsen anxiety, these can also be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or of a specific phobia.
How to Identify Your Anxiety Triggers
The first step towards fighting your anxiety is identifying your triggers. Unless you know what you are up against, improving your symptoms will seem overwhelming and you won’t know where to start.
Some of the best ways to identify your anxiety triggers are to:
- Journal about when you feel anxiety: In the moment or at the end of the day, take time to reflect on your experience. Write down how you felt and what made you feel the ways you did. You can use anxiety journal prompts to help you get started.
- Talk to a therapist about your anxiety history: Spending time dealing with the present issues is always useful, but looking back at the root of your anxiety is incredibly helpful. Try to process your earliest anxious memories for information about your condition and what has triggered your anxiety in the past.
- Consult your loved ones: Sometimes, your loved ones are better able to see the anxiety in you than you can see in yourself. Ask them for feedback about when you seem anxious and what triggers it.
- Test yourself: Your imagination is a powerful tool, and it can help you understand your anxiety. Set aside some time to think about and imagine being in various situations to see how your anxiety responds. It could be stressful, but the knowledge will be worth it. You could also try this exercise with the help of a trusted therapist if you’re afraid of your potential reactions.
Why Do I Feel Anxious for No Reason?
There is almost always a reason for feeling anxious. Some people may struggle to associate the feeling with the trigger, while other people may not notice their anxiety until well after the trigger has gone. Then, there are people with free floating anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). These people may feel anxious most of the day. They may be so used to their anxiety that they cannot even remember what makes them anxious in the first place.
How to Cope With Anxiety Triggers
Once you’ve identified your anxiety triggers, the next step is to acknowledge which of these are within your control and which are not. Making a plan to decrease the amount of times you experience triggers that are within your control can help to calm your anxiety. Learning to manage your overall stress levels and the triggers you cannot avoid can decrease the intensity of anxiety spikes associated with these triggers.
Here are ten ways to manage anxiety triggers:
1. Increase Your Healthy Physical Habits
Improving your overall physical health will decrease the likelihood that your physical health will trigger and worsen anxiety. Making sure to get enough exercise, eat a balanced and regularly-timed diet, making sure you’re hydrated, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, and improving sleep hygiene can have major impacts on both your physical and mental wellbeing.
2. Improve Your Emotional Regulation Skills
Building your emotional regulation skills will help you better navigate stressful moments, and ensure that anxiety spikes are less intense. Emotional regulation tools can include intentional deep breathing, mindfulness, grounding exercises and labeling your emotions.
3. Try Meditation & Yoga
Meditation is the act of focusing on the present moment, instead of allowing our brain to enter unhelpful thought processes, which is a major factor in anxiety. Yoga helps to connect our mind and body in an intentionally calming and soothing way, which makes it a natural anxiety management tool. Both of these can help get accustomed to acting the opposite of how anxiety encourages you to act.
4. Make a Plan
Whether it’s related to managing finances, preparing for a test, or navigating social situations, formulating a plan can help you feel more in control of navigating the situation. Decreasing your sense of helplessness typically tends to decrease feelings of anxiety as well.
5. Limit Social Media Intake
Social media can often start negative thought spirals relating to comparing ourselves to others. Limiting or engaging with social media in a more mindful way can help ensure you notice and stop negative thought patterns before they begin.
6. Practice for Social Settings Ahead of Time
Enlist the help of a friend (or a therapist) to walk through social scenarios before you are in them. Practicing ahead of time will help you navigate unexpected moments and catch negative self-talk you have in social situations.
7. Set Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries reduces conflict and helps to navigate toxic work environments. It can also help to improve your time management, self-care, and overall self-worth.
8. Ask for Help
Particularly when going through a major life transition, it can be difficult to remember who wants to support you. Ask for help in areas that you feel comfortable receiving help, and give yourself a break when you feel pressured to do everything yourself.
9. Work on Positive Self-Talk
Talking more positively to ourselves can have major benefits on our health and our mood. Letting go of perfectionism, negative assumptions, and negatively labeling ourselves reduces pressure and stress, and decreases overall anxiety levels.
10. Work With a Therapist
People usually pick up habits that trigger anxiety unintentionally, or because at one time that habit was actually helpful. A therapist can help highlight unintentional and unhelpful behaviors that contribute to anxiety, and help make a plan to manage these better.
Dr. Byrd encourages, “Therapy can be a helpful tool for increasing coping strategies for anxiety. Talking to a licensed mental health professional can also help you get to the root of the anxiety which can reduce its likelihood of occurring in the future.”
When to Get Professional Treatment
The biggest factor to consider when deciding whether to seek professional anxiety treatments comes down to how much your triggers and anxiety are impacting your overall functionality. Are these things getting in the way of you functioning at work, keeping you from engaging socially or at home, or even making it difficult to take care of yourself? If so, it could be a good time to seek out professional help.
There are several types of professionals who can help. If your triggers include medical concerns, making sure you have specialized medical doctors that you feel comfortable with is imperative. A mental health therapist is another professional who can help you manage your anxiety and triggers specifically with anxiety therapy.
Finding a therapist may seem daunting, but browsing an online therapist directory is a good place to begin searching. Sometimes it’s also important to include a psychiatrist for anxiety management, whether you need anxiety medication to help with chemical imbalances or to just help you make the most of your mental health therapy.
How to Help Someone Dealing With an Anxiety Trigger
Seeing someone struggle with anxiety can be difficult, and it’s often tricky to know how to best help them. If a friend or loved one is triggered, remember that staying calm and taking them seriously are incredibly helpful in relieving their anxiety.
“A good place to start when trying to help someone who is experiencing anxiety is to try to see the situation from their perspective. We have all felt anxious at some point in our lives, whether it be before public speaking, at a job interview, or while taking an exam. Do you remember how you felt in that moment? Did you have racing thoughts? Stomach pain? Irritability? Fear?
My guess is, you didn’t feel great. You probably were concerned with the perspective of those around you and had lost touch with the present moment. The first thing to do is to validate the stress they are experiencing. You may not understand their reaction, but hopefully you can understand the discomfort they are feeling.
Next, grounding exercises can be really helpful in allowing our parasympathetic nervous system to regain control. Part of the reason for the common symptoms of anxiety like increased heart rate and indigestion is because our fight/flight reflexes are initiated. Our body literally thinks it is in danger. Grounding the individual experiencing anxiety in the moment through deep breathing or asking them to describe their current environment in detail can help remind them they are safe.” – Dr. Stephanie Byrd, Licensed Clinical Psychologist6
Final Thoughts on Anxiety Triggers
Understanding your anxiety triggers is an essential part of learning to cope with and manage your overall anxiety. Anxiety can be a debilitating and frustrating disorder to experience, but there are tools and professionals available to empower and help you along this journey.