Situational anxiety is a person’s response to tense, new, or stressful situations, which can create high levels of discomfort and distress. This type of anxiety is typical and an expected experience of everyone during their life. Though it can be challenging to overcome, situational anxiety is not a diagnosable mental health condition. It often requires simple coping skills and lifestyle changes to relieve symptoms.
What Is Situational Anxiety?
Situational anxiety is just one type of anxiety that occurs in response to a specific instance or group of situations. A person can feel completely calm, relaxed, and comfortable in one environment and yet completely stressed, nervous, and uncomfortable in another when confronted by their anxiety trigger. This process is a regular and expected part of life called situational anxiety.1
When exposed to the situation, the physical and mental sensations of anxiety will arise; however, when they leave the negative experience, their anxiety levels return to baseline.
Although not an official mental health diagnosis, situational anxiety could eventually lead to a legitimate anxiety disorder diagnosis if not addressed appropriately. Suppose a person spends too much time in an anxiety-provoking situation or setting. In that case, the anxiety can begin permeating other parts of their lives, finding that their symptoms continue even when their situation has changed.
Can Situational Anxiety Be Helpful?
Under many circumstances, situational anxiety is a positive trait as the increase in anxiety can help people respond more appropriately to dangerous or stressful situations.2
Some instances where situational anxiety is helpful may include:
- Being confronted by an aggressive person
- Leading a presentation at work
- Taking a test at school
- Preparing for an athletic competition
Having a manageable amount of anxiety in these situations can help boost performance, increase focus, and improve their eventual outcomes.
Symptoms of Situational Anxiety
A challenge in separating situational anxiety from an anxiety disorder is that most symptoms will overlap. The critical difference between situational anxiety symptoms and anxiety disorder signs and symptoms is the intensity, frequency, and duration of the symptoms. Additionally, situational anxiety symptoms will not typically disrupt the person’s level of functioning, relationships, or work responsibilities.
Situational anxiety symptoms can include:3
- Feeling restless, on edge, or wound up
- Feeling fatigued after leaving the situation
- Struggling to focus and concentrate
- Being irritable or easily annoyed
- Worrying, being nervous, and feeling stressed
A person may notice other symptoms of situational anxiety that affect how their body feels. Physical symptoms of situational anxiety include:3
- Increased heart rate
- Sweating and feeling hot or flushed
- Feeling shaky
- Tingling in hands or feet
- Discomfort or pain in the chest
- Headache or stomachache
To be classified as situational anxiety, these symptoms should only begin with thinking of or being exposed to the situation. When the event ends or thoughts change, the symptoms should subside as well.
Examples of Situational Anxiety
Situational anxiety is when a person experiences anxiety in new or unfamiliar situations. It’s not a diagnosable condition, but a way of describing how anxiety can affect people. Situational anxiety is a normal and common response that we all experience at one point or another in our lives. Generally, the symptoms of situational anxiety don’t interfere with someone’s overall functioning or need formal treatment.
Here are some examples of what might trigger situational anxiety:
- Traveling alone for the first time
- Taking on a new project or a getting promotion at work
- Interviewing for a job
- Public speaking for a conference, a presentation in front of your class, etc.
- Feeling nervous before taking an important exam
- Meeting new people
It is important to note that stressful situations are not universal. What isn’t a problem for one person may be anxiety-provoking for another, leading to anxiety in an endless variety of countless life stressors for different people.
Situational Anxiety vs Anxiety Disorders
There is a fine line between situational anxiety and other disorders (i.e., social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, or other anxious conditions). Differentiating between them can be tricky, and only a trained mental health professional should be making the diagnosis.
For example, a specific phobia may seem like situational anxiety because symptoms only appear with exposure to certain stimuli. One could argue that someone with a spider phobia has situational anxiety about being around or thinking about spiders. But this argument does not keep the spirit of situational anxiety, as a phobia would have more intense symptoms that disrupt someone’s life and impair their level of functioning.
As mentioned, anxiety disorders will be distinct due to the symptoms’ intensity, frequency, or duration.
- Intensity: Situational anxiety can produce some intense symptoms, but when a person feels high levels of stress that lead to a panic attack, the condition is likely an anxiety disorder.
- Frequency: A person with situational anxiety may have just a handful of situations that spark their unwanted feelings. However, suppose they are finding that more and more situations trigger their anxiety. In that case, the condition may be spreading to generalized anxiety disorder.
- Duration: The feelings attached to situational anxiety should start to reduce once the person leaves the situation or after some time adjusting to their new position. Whereas someone who could be experiencing an anxiety disorder would have symptoms lasting for a significant portion of the day or longer.3
No one should have to weigh the difference between situational anxiety and anxiety disorders alone. Call on mental health professionals for guidance and direction.
Causes of Situational Anxiety
Not only does situational anxiety have many triggers from life experiences, but it also has many causes related to a person’s development.
Some main contributors to situational anxiety are:4
- Environment: A person with prolonged exposure to stressful and uncertain situations could eventually develop situational anxiety in response to their environment.
- Trauma: Anyone with a history of abuse, neglect, or assault is more likely to develop some form of anxiety. It could remain situational to related experiences or build towards an anxiety disorder with more significant impairments.
- Hormones: Men and women alike have hormonal issues that can contribute to the rise in anxiety. For example, a woman may feel relaxed and calm most of the time. But, when a particular situation combines with her menstrual cycle, it can trigger anxiety.
- Genetics: Someone with a family history of anxiety could be more prone to anxiety issues of their own. If not a full anxiety disorder, the person could be more inclined to experience situational anxiety.
A compelling aspect of anxiety is its self-reinforcing nature. During childhood, a person may become nervous before tests, only to do very well on each one. These experiences may lead them to link their stress to worry and high achievement, conditioning the person to connect anxiety to increased performance. Unconsciously, they may see anxiety as a tool to help them do well.
Still, the same can happen with associating the feeling with failure—like for a child who experiences intense test anxiety and then performs poorly, creating a negative cycle. Over time, the anxiety can grow in intensity and frequency, and it can begin doing more harm than good.
How to Deal With Situational Anxiety in the Moment
If situational anxiety is part of your life, finding, practicing, and utilizing positive coping skills is the best course of action. By adding coping skills to your daily routine, you can limit the unwanted effects of situational anxiety and get back to anxiety working for you.
Here are nine ways to help increase your ability to cope with situational anxiety:1, 2, 3, 4
1. Identify Your Situations
At the outset of coping with situational anxiety, you must better understand why those situations bring about negative emotions. What triggers your anxiety, how bad is it, and how often does it happen? With this baseline information, you can better plan your attack toward healthy lifestyle changes.
2. Identify Your Symptoms
Anxiety symptoms are complex and confusing because they are exaggerated forms of our everyday functioning. People sometimes experience a quicker heart rate, sweaty hands, and nervousness as part of our genetic response to danger. Your job here is to separate your typical reactions from anxious reactions and draw the line between what is standard stress for you and what is abnormal anxiety.
3. Prepare for When You Know You’ll Be Triggered
One way to ease situational anxiety is by getting the facts about the situation or event that’s causing your anxiety. For example, if you have a presentation at work, practice beforehand in front of friends; if you’re traveling for the first time, get information online, or ask friends with traveling experience to give you helpful tips. The more familiar you become with something that’s unknown, the less intimidating and frightening it will feel.
4. Gradually Expose Yourself to Your Fears
Gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to the feared or anxiety-producing situation can help. This is a way of building tolerance so overtime you’ll be less nervous towards the source of your anxiety. For example, if you’re afraid of the water, take weekly swimming lessons and start getting just your feet wet, next time you let the water reach your knees, and so on.
5. Think About How You Cope With Your Anxiety Triggers
As you gather information about your anxiety, pay attention to your current coping skills. This step is essential because many people react to stress with unhelpful or damaging responses. You could be making the anxiety worse in your attempts to improve your symptoms.
6. Remove Negative Coping Skills
Negative coping skills include drinking alcohol, using drugs, excessive shopping, or having risky sex. These reactions are tempting but are always problematic as they may lower anxiety at the moment, only to create more significant issues over time.
7. Refocus on Your Physical Health
One of the best ways to improve your mental health is to focus on your physical health. Being too tired, sedentary, and hungry can spark your anxiety. Give yourself enough time for restful sleep, find engaging ways to exercise, and fuel your body with healthy foods. Taking this action will leave you in a position to handle better any stressors that come your way.
8. Practice Relaxation Skills
People are usually quick to dismiss relaxation skills such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery exercises, but these techniques work. If you’ve struggled to find success in the past, it only means that you need to recommit to the practice and experiment with the best options for you.
9. Retrain Your Brain’s Response to Anxiety
Changing your body is great, but changing your thinking patterns is key to boosting your response to anxiety. Consider offering yourself some positive self-talk like:
- I’ve got this.
- I can do this.
- This feeling is only anxiety, and I can manage it.
- Anxiety is discomfort, not a danger.
10. Use Grounding Techniques
Using grounding techniques is a great way to push back against anxiety. Grounding techniques like the 333 rule for anxiety can help you tap into the here and now, using your senses to take in information about your surroundings to shift the focus away from the anxiety.
Long-Term Situational Anxiety Treatment
The line between situational anxiety and a full-blown anxiety disorder is thin. If you have been giving your best efforts in using the above coping skills with limited success, make a call to schedule an assessment for anxiety therapy with a mental health professional. There they can have a more informed conversation with their provider to see if anxiety medication might also be helpful.
Treating situational anxiety can be complicated, especially if insurance won’t pay for treatment when symptoms do not meet the threshold for a diagnosable mental health condition. People may need to rely on coping skills, self-help, and lifestyle changes to improve their experience, or pay out of pocket for their therapy appointments.
Anyone looking for a therapist can find a growing list of available specialists for anxiety disorders on an online directory of mental health practitioners.
Situational anxiety is normal, but anxiety disorders are not. Try your best to acknowledge and cope with your situational stress. If it grows too intense or your coping skills are ineffective, get some professional help to promote a calm, relaxed, and happier life.