Understanding What is Triggering My Anxiety Attacks, Physically and Emotionally

When you are having an anxiety attack it can feel like the world is caving in around you. Control seems to be slipping away, your thoughts are running wild and your body may ache.

When an anxiety attack is occurring, intense worry and fear cause distress and a host of physical sensations such as tense muscles, increased heart rate, shaking and difficulty focusing.

Anxiety attacks may feel endless at the moment but do not typically last more than half an hour. Essentially, anxiety attacks are much like generalized anxiety, but the symptoms are condensed into a much shorter span of time and are felt more intensely.

If you struggle with anxiety attacks, you likely already know how they feel, but what causes them? In this article, we’ll look at some common triggers of anxiety attacks and what to do about them.

*This article is only meant to be an overview of common triggers to anxiety and does not claim to offer medical advice. To get help for your anxiety attacks, seek the help of a professional.*

What are some common triggers to anxiety attacks?

Every person will have his or her own unique triggers to anxiety. Everyone worries about different things and fears different things, (perhaps influenced by past events, like with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). While some people will fear highway driving and others fear big crowds, there are some triggers that are more universal.

Physical triggers

Inadequate sleep: Not getting enough sleep can impair memory, concentration and negatively impact mood. When you’re drowsy, your body is more prone to negative experiences and you might be more susceptible to an anxiety attack.

Caffeine: When you’re tired you’re also more likely to grab a cup of coffee, which has been shown to increase anxiety in some cases. One study found that large doses of caffeine had a strong anxiogenic effect on those with anxiety disorders.

Alcohol: Like caffeine, alcohol can also be the culprit of anxiety-like sensations. Not only does alcohol cause feelings of anxiety, but many people seek out alcohol when they are already feeling anxious. When you’re trying to calm your nerves, drinking only makes it worse.

Food intake: A healthy and balanced diet can prevent a host of negative physical and mental outcomes. The Harvard Medical School published a comprehensive list of healthy eating and lifestyle tips to manage the anxiety that can be viewed here.

Emotional/social triggers

Insecurity: Anxiety attacks are commonly attributed to social situations. Wondering whether people accept you and how you’re perceived can cause a lot of distress to some individuals. It’s also a trigger that is difficult to avoid. Anxiety in social situations is often addressed in therapy through positive self-talk. Read more about social anxiety here

Money problems: It doesn’t take an expert to know that finances can put a huge strain on mental well-being. Even a person who sticks to a balanced budget knows the stress that comes with managing money. Job insecurity, unanticipated expenses and monthly costs can surely pile up and trigger an anxiety attack.

Relationships: Anxiety attacks can be triggered when you are around people that you don’t know, but they can also be provoked by conflict with friends and family. Tension is sure to arise at some point in most relationships, and when it does an anxiety attack may occur. 

High-pressure situations: Having expectations put on you can evoke anxiety like nothing else. A first date or a presentation at work can make you second guess yourself, especially if there’s a lot of suspense leading up to the event. Even if the events elicit excitement, at the same time they can also trigger an anxiety attack.

Job and school stress: Career and academic settings bring lots of opportunities for anxiety. Public speaking, grades, interviews, performance reviews and more can all be daunting tasks, and nothing says “anxiety” quite like a deadline. In treatment for anxiety, coping skills are often taught to manage triggers in settings you can’t avoid- like work or school.

What do I do when I have an anxiety attack?

There are a few helpful tips that can bear you through an anxiety attack. Although some mental health practitioners will advocate for a more complex routine, it’s best to keep it simple so you can remember what to do when you are feeling out of control. Practice the following in an order that works for you, and no worries if you skip a step or two.

  • Take deep breaths. Count as you breathe if it helps, and focus as much on the task of breathing as possible.
  • Acknowledge that you are having an anxiety attack. The anxiety attack will likely intensify if you attempt to continue what you were previously doing, especially if it was causing the distress.
  • Find a peaceful spot. Whether it’s a different room in your home or a bathroom break, take a few minutes to be by yourself where you won’t be bothered.
  • Take care of your physical needs. Have snacks and water handy if you experience anxiety attacks frequently (lightheadedness is a common symptom of anxiety attacks).
  • Reflect on your anxiety attacks in the following days and weeks to find themes among your triggers so you can better manage them.

Where can I get professional help?

Managing anxiety attacks is not an easy skill to learn and it doesn’t happen overnight. In the meantime, while you’re figuring out your triggers and building a toolbox of coping skills, you’ll want to enlist the help of mental health professional. 

With the right support in place, you’re on the fast track to minimizing anxiety attacks and coping through them smoothly. Mazitti & Sullivan’s team of licensed professionals can help you come to terms with your past so you can face your triggers without fear. Take back control of your anxiety and call 1-800-809-2925 to get started today.