Feeling anxious in certain situations is natural, and it could also relate to situational anxiety.
Experiencing anxiety from time to time doesn’t necessarily mean you live with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is a natural reaction to a perceived threat. This threat can be real or not, but what matters is that you think or feel you’re in danger of some kind, even if nothing is happening around you. In other words, it’s the thought of the threat that induces the symptoms of anxiety.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, anxiety could be an expected response to many situations you interpret as a possible threat.
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But it’s possible to experience anxiety symptoms in specific situations only. Have you found that speaking in front of crowds gives you sweaty palms? Or, do you experience chest tightness when asking your manager for a raise? This is called situational anxiety.
Situational anxiety means you experience some or all symptoms of anxiety when faced with one or more specific situations. This is typically a one-time occurrence, but it could repeat over time.
In other words, situational anxiety isn’t an anxiety disorder.
For example, you experience symptoms of anxiety before the first day of school, speaking up during a meeting, or watching impactful news.
The thought that something may go wrong or go the way you fear is enough to make you experience the symptoms of anxiety.
Situation-based anxiety is common according to Sanam Hafeez, a licensed psychologist in New York City. Most everyone experiences some level of anxiety about something in their lives, she explains.
“It could be a job interview or you have to present in front of a bunch of people, or have to go to court for something, […] any of that could bring situational anxiety,” says Hafeez.
Everyone is different and those situations that make you anxious might not be the same as the ones making someone else feel this way.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), on the other hand, refers to experiencing chronic symptoms of anxiety that are not specific to any event or situation. It may be that some situations make you more anxious than others or it could be that you experience symptoms without knowing what induced them.
Formal symptoms of anxiety
Symptoms of anxiety tend to be the same for most types of anxiety disorders and for situational anxiety.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the most common symptoms are:
- chest pressure
- shortness of breath
- upset stomach
- rapid heat rate
- muscular tension
- inability to focus
- dry mouth
- changes in visual perception
- negative or irrational thoughts
- a sense of danger or impending doom
Coping with situational anxiety may be something you don’t think about until you experience anxiety. Knowing there are ways to manage these symptoms, if and whenever they come up, can help.
It might start with learning to read yourself and anticipate the symptoms so you can self-soothe.
Joanne Frederick, a licensed psychologist and author of the book “Copeology,” suggests taking note of the way your body feels and how your thoughts progress when you start feeling uncomfortable in a given situation.
“If you generally are not an anxious person, but all of a sudden you notice that your palms are sweaty, you’re talking faster, or your breathing is changing, and your stomach is upset, that can be a sign that there might be situational anxiety,” says Frederick.
Hafeez suggests reflecting on where you think the fear is really coming from and trying to talk yourself through how this feeling may not be based on evidence of what’s going on around you.
Other suggestions that may help you stop situational anxiety on the spot include:
- practicing deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to calm both your mind and body
- refocusing that anxious energy elsewhere, like physical activity
- making a mental list of the ways that your fear has not come to life in similar situations
Dismissing someone’s fears may not be helpful when you try to support them. You may feel inclined to say, “it’s OK, nothing’s going on” when you don’t experience anxiety, but try to remember the feeling is real for the other person.
Consider these tips to support someone experiencing situational anxiety:
- Listen to what they feel comfortable sharing, but don’t press too hard.
- Validate the emotions they’re sharing even if you can’t relate.
- Reassure them of their safety and your support.
- Distracting them from the immediate situation if possible, without imposing it to them.
- Allow them to take a pause or stay in place if they feel unable to move or react.
Situational anxiety is common and real. Even if you don’t live with a formal mental condition, like an anxiety disorder, you can experience symptoms of anxiety in specific situations.
Hafeez says it may be more than situational anxiety if you notice you experience symptoms more frequently or intensely and they start to interfere with how you navigate life. This may indicate you could use the support of a mental health professional.
If this is your case, reaching out for professional help can support your efforts to manage how you feel and the impact it has on your life.