5 Common Anxiety Triggers – and What You Can Do About Them
Anxiety is a hot topic in today’s world. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans (18 and older), or 18.1 percent of the population, every year. In fact, more people suffer from anxiety disorders in the United States than from any other mental illness. That statistic alone begs the question: What in the world has us so riddled with anxiety?
Anxiety is relentless and can cause its victims to isolate and become paralyzed with fear. Even the most well-intentioned people – those who try to provide comfort and show support – often leave the sufferer feeling inadequate, melodramatic or dismissed. Statements like “don’t worry,” “calm down” and “let it go” can seem disingenuous and lead the individual to suffer in silence rather than reach out for help.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, it is important to surround yourself with a team of medical doctors, clinicians and professionals who specialize in mental health. Effective methods of treatment include medication, therapy and healthy coping strategies. Below are five common anxiety triggers that, if avoided, can help keep symptoms at bay.
Triggers are different from causes. A trigger is something that sets the anxiety in motion, while a cause is the underlying source of its formation (i.e., genetics, environment, upbringing).
1) Toxic Relationships – Whether your relationship with an individual was unhealthy from the start or it has become harmful over time, toxic relationships can trigger anxiety. Not all unhealthy relationships are formed by two unhealthy people; instead, one individual may try to manipulate, criticize and oppress the other person in order to gain a sense of power and personal adequacy. Toxicity can develop in various types of relationships, including romantic, professional, friendly and family.
Solution: Sometimes breaking ties with the individual is not possible, such as a co-worker or a family member. Therefore, it is important to do your own work around codependency recovery. Professional therapy and/or a support group can help you determine and establish healthy boundaries with the toxic individual. When you take back your power and follow through with appropriate consequences, you realize you have control over your own peace and serenity.
Recommended Resource: The Boundaries Book Series by Dr. John Townsend and Dr. Henry Cloud
2) News, Smartphones & Social Media – Just over the last couple of decades, we have become an extremely connected, yet incredibly disconnected, society. We check our smartphones for social media updates, news alerts and text messages multiple times a day, but we rarely find time to call an old friend or do something nice for a neighbor. When tragedy strikes, such as a mass shooting, we are bombarded with cell phone footage from every angle. We hear the repeated ‘pops’ of gunfire from the perpetrator’s arsenal of weapons, and our minds can hardly tell the difference between watching on screen and being on scene.
Political rants flood our social channels, unbiased news is practically nonexistent, everyone has a platform on which to broadcast his or her opinion, and we compare our real lives to the highlight reels of social media. Nothing feels sacred anymore. Connected? Yes. Disconnected? Absolutely. It’s no wonder 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders annually.
Solution: Does the mere thought of powering off your phone at least once per day trigger anxiety? If so, it might be time to give it some serious consideration. Says Alison Broderick, NCRC-II, founder and owner of The Recovery Coach, LLC, “When I make this suggestion to my clients, the reaction is often the same. Panic. ‘But what if my child needs me?’ ‘I have employees who depend on me.’ ‘My parents are in poor health.’” Broderick continues, “Being this available and on call 24/7 sets us up to play a role we were never intended to play: God. It also keeps us in a constant state of fear that something bad is about to happen. Let those who depend on you know you are unplugging, in case of an emergency, and then relax. Remember, none of us is powerful enough to save everyone from crisis—especially through a mobile device.”
3) Substance Use & Abuse – Individuals who use alcohol and/or drugs as a means to quell their anxiety symptoms may eventually find themselves in the throes of addiction. While substances may provide relief in the beginning, they quickly morph into the proverbial chicken/egg dilemma: The substances suppress the anxiety, and the anxiety is caused by the substances. This is the cycle of addiction, and it is vicious.
Solution: If using substances commenced as an attempt to find relief from anxiety, then the most practical antidote is to find and implement other coping strategies that support your anxiety recovery. Individual and group therapy, deep breathing exercises and meditation, journaling, yoga and a well-balanced diet are healthy tools for managing anxiety.
Recommended Resource: "50 Strategies to Beat Anxiety” from Psychology Today
4) Sleep Deprivation – It’s no surprise that a lack of sleep not only affects us physically, but also influences our mental health. Herein lies another chicken/egg dilemma: Does exhaustion cause anxiety, or does anxiety disrupt sleep? The recommended amount of sleep—7-9 hours a night—has been shown to elevate energy levels and mood, as well as improve one’s overall quality of life. Sleep is a basic human need, and when that need is not met properly, it can have profound effects on our physical and mental wellbeing.
Solution: A Google search on how to get a good night’s rest will generate millions of results. If that alone overwhelms you and further exacerbates anxiety, we recommend keeping it simple. Focus on 3-5 tools for your nighttime “toolbox” and use them regularly. For instance, you might try winding down an hour before your desired bedtime by shutting off all electronics, reading a book and enjoying a cup of hot tea. Other effective tools include making a mental gratitude list from A to Z, scanning your body from head to toe, and counting down from 100 to zero.
Recommended Resource: “Healthy Sleep Tips” by the National Sleep Foundation
5) Busyness – Do you find yourself bouncing from one obligation to the next, with no time for self-care, meditation or reflection? Do you end your day with a sigh of relief and a sloppy crash on the couch? According to the late American Catholic author Thomas Merton, busyness is a subtle act of violence.
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Not only is chronic busyness a form of avoidance rooted in fear, but it is an anxiety producer as well. Without time to pause and process the what and why of each activity, our so-called responsibilities become premeditated resentments and, quite frankly, an outward display of pride and self-will. We have become a society made up of yes-men and yes-women, where we assume more obligations and roles than our schedule or skillset will allow. Many of us are people-pleasers who are overcommitted, overworked and overtired.
Solution: If your constant state of busyness is triggering anxiety, it is essential to slow down, move with intention, focus on one task a time and breathe. Try listing all of your current commitments on a piece of paper, such as projects and deadlines at work, recurring events like youth sports practices or piano lessons for your child, special occasions and even day-to-day responsibilities like grocery shopping and laundry. Then, create three columns – Mandatory, Ask for Help, Postpone – and determine under which category each commitment falls.
Saying yes to everything is a surefire way to increase your anxiety. Remember, “no” is a complete sentence – you owe lengthy explanations to no one. Setting boundaries with others will, in turn, set you free.
Recommended Resource: Begin each day with mindfulness, meditation or a spiritual practice that brings you peace. Mobile apps like Insight Timer, Calm and Headspace (Headspace for Kids is also available) provide guided meditations and mindfulness techniques to bring stillness and balance to your life.