Sometimes anxiety and worry can seem to spring out of nowhere. Before you know it, you’re upset and your brain is buzzing with bothersome thoughts.

But your anxiety isn’t that random. “Your anxiety is actually a process,” writes Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, in her book Women Who Worry Too Much: How to Stop Worry & Anxiety from Ruining Relationships, Work & Fun. “It’s made up of a series of thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors.”

The key to better understand your anxiety and worry is to examine all these components individually. Once you know how your anxiety and worry manifest, you can work on reducing them.

Your Thoughts

What you say to yourself can serve as a major trigger for anxiety. According to Hazlett-Stevens, worry thoughts often begin with the question “What if?” What if they get into an accident? What if I fail? What if everyone thinks I’m an idiot? What if I lose my job? What if my husband loses his?

In addition to worrying about the future, you might worry about the past. You also might (mis)interpret certain physical sensations, assuming that a racing heart signals something is really wrong, Hazlett-Stevens says.

To identify the specific thoughts driving your anxiety and worry, consider the following, according to Hazlett-Stevens:

  • “What thoughts run through your mind when you’re feeling anxious?”
  • “How do these thoughts impact other anxiety components, including your feelings, physical sensations and behavior?”
  • Compare your worry thoughts to the thoughts you have when you’re happy, calm or angry.

Your Feelings & Physical Sensations

When you’re anxious, it’s common to feel frustrated, uncomfortable or annoyed, Hazlett-Stevens says. Our physical signs can be either voluntary sensations such as furrowing the forehead, shallow breathing and clenching your jaw or involuntary sensations such as a racing heart, sweating and shaking, she says.

Hazlett-Stevens suggests asking these questions to figure out your feelings and sensations:

  • What physical sensations do you experience when you worry?
  • Do you experience the same sensations or feelings every time?
  • Does it depend on the situation?
  • The more you worry, do your feelings or sensations escalate or change?
  • When do you experience more intense sensations, such as a racing heart?

Your Behaviors

According to Hazlett-Stevens, your behavior refers to any action you do or don’t take. When you’re anxious or worried about something, it’s common to avoid or withdraw from it.

For instance, you might avoid social situations, driving down a specific street or speaking your mind, she says. Or your avoidance actions might be more subtle, such as seeking reassurance from others.

All of these behaviors, Hazlett-Stevens says, have one thing in common: You perform them to get instant (but temporary) relief. The problem is that avoidance backfires and actually reinforces and heightens your anxiety.

“Any hidden beliefs that those situations really are threatening and you won’t be able to handle them are strengthened,” she writes.

Here are some questions to ask about your actions:

  • “What situations have you avoided because of your worry?”
  • If you didn’t avoid a situation, did you avoid certain behaviors? Hazlett-Stevens gives the example of a woman attending a party but not starting any conversations because she’s worried of embarrassing herself.
  • Do you avoid speaking up in your close relationships?
  • Do you engage in subtle avoidance actions, such as seeking reassurance from others or calling your loved ones repeatedly to make sure they’re OK?

Pinpointing Your Personal Patterns

When you’re excessively anxious, it can be tough to separate out each component, Hazlett-Stevens says. That’s why it helps to figure out your personal patterns and reactions. For instance, consider how your worry thoughts lead to your feelings and how certain sensations lead to your worry thoughts.

What also helps, according to Hazlett-Stevens, is to pay attention when you’re worrying in the future. Be curious about how you arrived at that anxious place, she says.

She suggests asking these questions to figure out the sequence of your anxiety and worry:

  • “When did you last feel calm or not anxious?
  • Then what happened?
  • Did your sequence begin with a worried thought this time?
  • Was it in response to something that just happened?
  • Did you hear or see something that reminded you of your worry or did the worry just appear in your mind for no clear reason?
  • Once you began to worry, what feelings and sensations followed?
  • What did you say to yourself in response to them?
  • Did you change your behavior in any way during this sequence, such as checking something, seeking reassurance, or avoiding doing something? If so, what thoughts, feelings and sensations followed?”

Learning how anxiety and worry manifest in your life can help you in working through them. To learn more about reducing worry and anxiety, check out this piece from our mental health library.