7 Unexpected Ways You Can Trigger An Anxiety Attack Without Realizing It
Although many people who have anxiety can tell when it's coming on, the signs of a panic attack can vary, and be unpredictable for some people. What brings on an anxiety attack can also be hard to peg down — you can be running a quick errand when suddenly your heart starts to race, you feel like you can't breathe, and everything starts to feel very overwhelming. But this is not an uncommon thing. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common forms of mental illness in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Clinical psychologist, Dr. Danielle Forshee, tells Bustle that anxiety attacks are generally comprised of racing thoughts where the content is filled with worry. It's as if you can’t stop the hamster wheel going round and round in your mind. "The precipitant to anxiety is typically a trigger that occurs outside of you such as a sound, a person, a place, or something somebody says, that then switches on the 'automatic worry-thoughts' in your brain," Forshee tells Bustle.
When you start having an anxiety attack you may notice symptoms such as an increased heart rate, sweaty palms, tightness in your chest, or nausea. According to Forshee, it's your body's way of preparing itself to protect you because it thinks you're in a potentially threatening situation.
But if you know of some of the unexpected ways you can trigger an anxiety attack without realizing it, you can better prepare yourself for what to do when it happens. Here are some little known ways you can bring on anxiety attack, according to experts.
1. Being Alone With Your Thoughts
"A lot of times, people tell me that they don’t notice any specific situational trigger that caused their anxiousness," Forshee says. "Often times, people don’t realize that a trigger could simply be not having any psychological distraction, meaning, that they are alone with their own thoughts."
So an anxiety attack can happen when you're laying in your own bed at night trying to get some sleep. It can even happen when you're home alone and it's extremely quiet.
If you find yourself alone with just your thoughts and feelings, Forshee says it's important to pay close attention to the "raw content of what your automatic thoughts are." In other words, what are you really saying to yourself inside your own head? Are your thoughts solid facts or fears?
"When you notice the automatic thoughts that you have early on, this provides you an opportunity to start engaging in coping skills that will help slow down that hamster wheel," she says. Turning on the TV or listening to music can be ways to cope in this situation.
2. Eating Certain Foods
There's nothing wrong with loving pizza and pasta. But if you have anxiety, eating a large amount of carbohydrates can possibly make it worse. According to Nancy Irwin, Psy.D., the Primary Therapist at Seasons in Malibu, eating an excessive amount of refined sugars or too many complex carbs can cause spikes in insulin, which can create more anxiety. If you notice certain lifestyle choices may be impacting your anxiety, Irwin encourages making a few habit changes, like consuming more healthy foods, to reduce potential anxiety triggers.
3. Thinking About The Future
There's nothing wrong with planning ahead from time to time. But sometimes, thinking about the future can trigger an anxiety attack if your thoughts become negative. "Anxiety is typically 'borrowing pain from the future,'" Irwin says. So it's important to train yourself to neutralize the negative "what if" thoughts into positive ones like, "What if everything works out the way I hoped?" And if you are having difficulty reducing your anxiety surrounding future events, talking with a loved one or therapist can help serve to minimize fears before they get out of control.
4. Misplacing Something
Misplacing things can make anyone nervous, but if you lose something you are particularly attached to, it can cause an anxiety attack. "While not [always] directly being a cause, it's typically an indicator that you are being preoccupied by other thoughts and you're not truly present in the moment," Crystal Sheffield-Baird, LPN and Emotional Wellness Coach tells Bustle. And that preoccupation could be due to worrying thoughts you're having a tough time getting rid of.
Although anxiety attacks aren't completely preventable, Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, Doctor On Demand Adult Psychiatrist, tells Bustle knowing what your triggers are and recognizing the signs of an anxiety attack is the best place to start. "That way, you can begin using coping skills you know work best for you, sooner," Benders-Hadi says. Techniques might include removing yourself from a stressful situation, getting some fresh air, using deep breathing or counting to ten. "Just because one coping technique works for someone else doesn't mean it will for you, so don't be afraid to try different things until you find what eases your anxiety best."
5. Talking About Something Stressful
Although talking about worries can be cathartic for some, take note if your fears often trigger more worries, and possibly even a panic attack. "Racing thoughts can sometimes sneak up on you and takes practice to be aware that it's happening to you," Sheffield-Baird says. If you can recognize that speaking about your fears is only making them worse, you can immediately start applying some coping techniques like deep breathing in order to slow yourself down.
6. Being Hyper Alert Of Your Surroundings
"By it's nature, an anxiety attack is the manifestation of the cumulative build-up of living in an activated fight-flight-freeze-faint state, for an extended period of time," Charlotte Elkin, LCSW-R, Behavioral Health Specialist at Oscar Health Center tells Bustle. If you struggle with anxiety, chances are you are more alert to your surroundings, because you might be constantly on the look out for things that trigger your anxiety. As a result, a hypersensitivity to what's around you might trigger a panic attack, both from coming into contact with the things you fear, as well as being in a prolonged state of anticipatory fear.
If an anxiety attack happens to you, therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer tells Bustle, "A great technique is to tap on your pressure points, like the inside of your wrists. It may look a bit odd if your doing it in a public setting, but who cares? You’ll feel a heck of a lot better and perhaps teach some onlookers a valuable new trick."
7. Just Going About Your Day
Anxiety attacks may occur spontaneously, Dr. Gene Beresin, Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospitaltells Bustle. It can happen in open spaces or crowded ones. It can happen when you're driving over a bridge, or taking a bus, or just being in an elevator.
"No one knows why they happen at these times, but when they do, not only do you feel and fear you are going to die, but you may associate that particular place with the panic attacks," Beresin says. "This can often lead to developing a phobia toward that particular place, causing someone to avoid that situation all together for fear of causing the dreaded panic attack."
But avoiding a "trigger" place is the last thing you should do, as it will only increase your stress and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead keep willing yourself to go back to the place where you had an attack. "You may need to go in small baby steps and that’s OK," Beresin says. "This is called systematic desensitization. It’s a great way to diminish phobias and anticipatory anxiety associated with panic attacks."
Other ways to help prevent anxiety attacks include meditating, cognitive behavioral therapy, or in some cases, taking medication. Anxiety attacks happen to a lot of people. Dealing with it is all about finding a way to cope that really works best for you.