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Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you suffer from anxiety, you likely know all too well that sometimes what sets you off is obvious, and other times your panic seems to come from nowhere. You also likely know that what triggers your anxiety is different from the next person. Understanding your anxiety symptoms and causes may be difficult, but can help you in managing what can otherwise be a paralyzing condition.
There is a stigma around the words “mental illness,” but there shouldn’t be. Anxiety, the most common mental illness in the United States, affects some 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Something this common shouldn’t be stigmatized.
Stigma may stand in the way of getting help. Only about 37% suffering from anxiety disorders get treatment, according to the ADAA, despite many effective treatment options being available.
Acknowledging and then understanding your anxiety are the first steps at getting help.
There are several forms of anxiety disorder, and knowing which one affects you can help you understand your triggers and their effects.
Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by a persistent worry or tension that interferes with your daily life, and may involve worry about home life, your job, your family, or other minor issues. Symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, poor concentration and trouble sleeping may go along with generalized anxiety.
Panic disorder involves panic attacks, characterized by rapid pulse, sweating, trembling, chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling light headed, and a few of losing control or even dying. If you’ve had an anxiety or panic attack, you know these feelings well.
Social anxiety disorder is the most common type of anxiety disorder and involves extreme fear or anxiety about social interactions. While this does apply to public speaking, it could also be anxiety related to dinner with friends or a company Christmas party.
Phobias are anxieties or fears related to very specific circumstances such as insects, flying or heights. Alone, these things are rarely dangerous, and the phobia is an irrational fear.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in situations you can’t escape from easily. For example, fear of public transportation, standing in line or in a crowd, being outside of the house alone, and the like. It involves more than one of these fears and can escalate until the person is afraid to leave the house at all.
Separation anxiety is anxiety related to being seperated from certain people.
Sometimes, knowing what type of anxiety you have is all you need to identify the triggers. Or, vice versa: identifying the triggers of your anxiety can help you (and your doctor) identify what type of anxiety you suffer from.
If, for example, getting on the bus is a trigger for you, you may suffer from a phobia or agoraphobia. If, however, you’re plagued by a more constant, low-level worry, it may be generalized anxiety disorder.
Sometimes it can seem like your anxiety has no trigger, but this isn’t often the case. Instead, a lack of self-awareness and the magnitude of the anxiety itself can sort of drown out what preceded it. For instance, you may not make the connection between the alcohol you drank last night and your heart racing, panicky feeling today, or your low-level thoughts about a presentation next week, merely the growing sense of dread creeping up on you.
Tracking your anxiety is a good place to start, especially if you have a difficult time determining the triggers. When you feel anxious, write it down and note your feelings and anything that may have preceded them. Getting in the habit of this will help you recognize patterns and force you to think more critically about the drivers behind your panic and worry.
Some common anxiety triggers include:
Lack of sleep
Social media use or screen time
Loneliness or social isolation
Ruminating over past traumas or confrontations
Uncertainty about the future
Fear of upcoming events such as social interactions, tests, etc. Travel anxiety is one example, especially if you're heading somewhere unknown.
Recognizing your anxiety triggers can help you manage your response. If you know, for example, that a poor night sleep may cause anxiety the following day, setting up a consistent sleep routine can lessen your symptoms. But sometimes the work you put in just isn’t enough. Sometimes talking with someone helps — helps you identify the triggers you may be blind to while in the midst of very anxious times, and help you talk through the things in life that can generally cause mental distress.
Anxiety can be paralyzing, and seeking to understand it is the first step in managing it. There are numerous anxiety triggers — what sends you on a spiral towards a panic attack may have no effect on the next person. Track your feelings of anxiety to help identify the things that may set you off, but don’t be afraid to seek help.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.