It’s very common for Kristin Bianchi’s clients to tell her that they’re feeling anxious, but they’re not sure why. They say they recently haven’t experienced anything particularly stressful or anxiety provoking, so it doesn’t make much sense.
Consequently, “they frequently become worried about the meaning behind these seemingly random feelings of anxiety,” said Bianchi, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in treating OCD, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and depression at the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, M.d.
In other words, she noted, “they become worried about worrying, or frightened of fear.”
When many of Regine Galanti’s clients initially start working with her, they, too, describe their anxiety as just happening. Galanti is a licensed psychologist and director of Long Island Behavioral Psychology, where she specializes in using evidence-based treatments for anxiety and related disorders in children, teens, and adults.
Many of us believe our anxiety comes out of the blue. It just feels so random and sudden—startling us like the siren of a smoke alarm, or a squirrel jumping out of the bushes.
But this is rarely the case. Rather, we simply don’t notice our triggers. What we do notice is our anxiety, because it tends to be blaringly, glaringly loud. “When we feel something strongly, we often zero in on it and discount all the information leading up to and surrounding it,” Galanti said.
And the information that leads up to your blaringly, glaringly loud anxiety might be a thought, feeling, or behavior. Galanti noted that anxiety, and really all emotions, consist of those three parts. For instance, you might feel horribly anxious the morning after going to sleep past midnight, she said. You might become anxious as you notice your heart beating faster, she said.
Bianchi noted that it’s very common not to recognize that our thoughts are a significant trigger. “Thinking happens so quickly and automatically that we often don’t realize that we’re having stressful dialogues or creating catastrophic narratives in our own heads.”
For instance, she said, you might not even realize that you’re revisiting a recent conversation that caused you some stress. Maybe you’re replaying how your coworker was gossiping about your boss, which made you very uncomfortable. Maybe earlier this morning you and your spouse fought over your monthly budget (or lack thereof). Maybe your mind drifted to the sarcastic remarks your date was making (and how annoying they were).
The catastrophic narratives your head is spinning might include: “wondering whether or not you turned off certain household appliances, then imagining your house burning down if you forgot to do so; worrying that something bad will happen to a loved one, then imagining your reaction if that type of personal tragedy were to occur; creating ‘worst-case scenarios’ involving academic, career, or financial ruin when thinking about a recent disappointment or setback in any of those domains,” according to Bianchi.
Panic attacks also are a prime example. They seem sudden, but there are usually specific triggers, Galanti said. It might be a thought, “I can’t easily escape this situation,” or a physical sensation, such as your heart rate speeding up, she said.
And then there’s our digital culture. “We reflexively hop from tab to tab, app to app, and website to website, generally giving very little thought to the process,” Bianchi said. But while we might not notice that we’re doing all this hopping and scrolling, we’re still responding emotionally to what we’re consuming, she said.
That means that we are responding emotionally to sensationalist news headlines, flawless Instagram images, and emails from colleagues and clients, all of which can trigger anxiety. However, we’re too hyper-focused on these stimuli to notice what’s brewing inside our bodies.
“Even low-level anxiety reflects that we’re experiencing a fight-or-fight response,” Bianchi said. “When we finally notice it, it can come as a surprise to us, as we hadn’t been paying attention to it up until that point.”
So what can you do? What are your options when your anxiety seems to arise out of the blue?
Below, you’ll find a few tips on identifying your triggers—even the subtle ones—and reducing anxiety when it starts. It’s especially helpful to practice the relaxation strategies when you’re not anxious. This way you’re familiar with them, and maybe even created a habit.
- Act like a scientist. Galanti tells clients that the goal is to help them treat their anxiety like a scientist: to “take an outsider perspective on their insides.” To do this, she suggested readers use a journal or the notes section on your phone to record your anxiety. That is, whenever you feel anxiety coming on, she said, ask yourself, “What just happened?” “literally, what happened immediately before and then try and pinpoint [your] thoughts, physical feelings, and what [you] do.” Maybe you downed a huge cup of coffee. Maybe you thought about your to-do list. Maybe your thoughts shifted to your child’s first big presentation. Maybe you read an email from your boss. Maybe you said yes to an invitation (that you really, really didn’t want to accept). Maybe you started sweating because it’s so hot. Tracking what triggers your anxiety helps you to spot patterns, and “those patterns can help people come up with solutions,” Galanti added.
- Slow down your breathing. Bianchi suggested “breathing in slowly through your nose to a count of 4 to 6 seconds, holding your in-breath for 1 to 2 seconds, then slowly breathing out through your mouth to a count of 4 to 6 seconds.” When you’re breathing out, it helps to “imagine that you’re blowing fuzz off a dandelion or blowing a stream of bubbles,” she said.
- Practice this grounding technique. According to Bianchi, find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. “This shifts our focus away from the anxiety and helps us to reconnect to the present moment using our five senses.”
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation. This involves scanning your body for muscle tension, and then “unclenching” tight muscles to release that tension, Bianchi said. “When doing this, it’s important to remember to relax your jaw, open your mouth slightly, and make sure that your tongue is positioned at the bottom of your mouth (versus flexed against the roof of your mouth).” You also can use an app that offers a guided practice, such as Headspace; Stop, Breathe, and Think; and Pacifica, Bianchi said.
- Face your fears. Avoidance only amplifies and strengthens our anxiety. Facing your fears, a skill known as “exposure” in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is incredibly effective in reducing anxiety. Galanti suggested devising a list of small steps to help you face your triggers. For instance, she said, if caffeine triggers your anxiety, you might “start drinking a little bit of coffee a day, and see what happens. Even if you do feel anxious, maybe you can handle it better than you think you can.” Another option is to work with a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety with CBT or other successful treatments. Bianchi suggested starting your search at a professional organization, such as https://adaa.org, and http://www.abct.org.
Anxiety can sometimes feel like it has zero rhyme or reason, which can be exceptionally frustrating. It can feel like you’re going about your business, and BAM! an object falls from the sky and smacks you on your head.
But when you delve deeper, you realize that there’s a thought, feeling, or behavior that sparked that bam! And that’s valuable information. Because now you can focus on the root of the issue and try to resolve it, whether that’s a conflict with a loved one, difficulty saying no, the fear of fear, not enough sleep, or something else altogether.