Common Triggers for Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks are an alarming sign of mental and emotional difficulties. They interfere with normal functioning in numerous ways, and over time can take a heavy toll on a person’s physical and emotional health. Certain events, circumstances, people, or memories can all act as triggers for these attacks, giving them a predictable element that doesn’t make them any less unwelcome. Oftentimes, anxiety attacks are a symptom of a hidden mental health disorder, and only with customized, comprehensive, residential care can those disorders—and the anxiety attacks they cause—be overcome.

Anxiety attacks are similar to panic attacks, in that they also produce physical and psychological symptoms that can be distracting and debilitating. They are not as overwhelming as panic attacks and tend to develop more slowly over time, and only in response to circumstances or events that a person perceives as stressful.

While panic produces more disabling and frightening symptoms, high anxiety that leads to an anxiety attack is unpleasant and uncomfortable and inhibits normal functioning. It is a source of real misery, and those who experience anxiety attacks will often develop avoidant behaviors or other coping mechanisms designed to protect them from the possibility of another attack.

The complete sets of triggers for two people who experience anxiety attacks will never be identical. Nevertheless, certain anxiety attack triggers tend to be broadly experienced, as those who have anxiety attacks generally share many of the same emotional and psychological characteristics.

Some of the common triggers for anxiety attacks include:

#1 Negative Thinking and Attitudes

Individuals with serious anxiety problems may frequently tie themselves up in knots imagining all types of gloomy scenarios and contingencies. When they run through these imaginary scenes in their heads, they see themselves doing poorly or not responding appropriately, and experiencing increasing anxiety because of their inadequate or embarrassing performance.

Unfortunately, the compulsive habit of anticipating bad outcomes can make anxiety attacks a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative thinking and anticipating the worst sabotages spontaneity, replacing natural responses with preprogrammed (negative) reactions and behaviors. Too often those who adopt negative attitudes trap themselves in a vicious feedback loop, where anxious tendencies are reinforced by the fear or expectation that an anxiety attack will occur—which it then does.

#2 Extreme Self-Consciousness

Those with anxiety issues possess a heightened awareness of the risk of a sudden attack. They know how it will make them feel, and how it will impact their ability to control their reactions and behavior. As potentially triggering situations unfold, they will find themselves paying excessive attention to their breathing, sense of equilibrium, and muscle tension, searching for the slightest sign to indicate they might be on the verge of having an anxiety attack.

Predictably, this high level of self-awareness actually empowers anxiety, causing it to intensify. This dynamic is self-destructive and can be enough to trigger an attack in many instances. Focusing on the threat so intensely only brings on the anxiety that is feared, as those who are overly self-conscious have no avenue of escape from their preoccupations.

#3 Feelings of Being Looked at or Judged

Men and women who struggle with anxiety and anxiety attacks fear their own reactions. But they are just as intimidated by the thought of how other people will react to them. They are convinced others will judge them as weak, inferior, and unworthy, if they exhibit signs of stress in situations others handle comfortably and with aplomb.

These fears are exaggerated but not entirely irrational or incorrect, which is a part of what makes them so insidious. The sad truth is that sometimes people will detect discomfort or awkwardness in others and react to it insensitively, or even cruelly. This may not happen often, but the fact that it happens at all can put people with anxiety issues on edge and on alert, creating circumstances where a debilitating anxiety attack is more likely to occur if they have the slightest concern that others are watching them or talking about them.

#4 Memories of Past Attacks Happening in Certain Environments

Anxiety is reinforced by awareness of it. Quite often, that awareness is sharpened or stimulated by unpleasant memories of past failures or humiliations (either real or imaginary). Exposures to certain environments, situations, or people can trigger an onrush of such memories, which will in turn trigger an exaggerated anxiety response.

Bad memories can help sow the seeds of a new and possibly more intense anxiety attack. Bad memories of the more recent attack and the circumstances under which it occurred are then created, making the association between memories and anxiety attacks stronger and increasing the odds of more memory-induced attacks in the future.

#5 Anticipation of Failure

People with chronic anxiety lack confidence in their ability to perform, either generally or in specific circumstances. They doubt their resiliency and abilities, indicating a level of chronic self-doubt that is an outgrowth of long-term self-esteem problems.

For individuals with this problem, an anxiety attack comes to be seen not as an unfortunate reaction, but as further proof of the person’s inferiority—which naturally makes resisting the anxiety more difficult. When an anxious person with deep-seated self-esteem problems approaches a situation that they know will cause them to experience intense anxiety, their lack of confidence in their ability to manage their reactions, make a good impression, or do better than the last time can act as a trigger for a fresh bout of discomfiting anxiety.

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#6 Environmental Changes

Individuals who labor under the constant possibility of an anxiety attack tend to experience or develop a range of physical sensitivities, many of which manifest in surprising ways. Their reactions to weather changes, for example, may be quite intense, as they become dizzy, struggle to breathe, or experience muscle weakness or fatigue when exposed to weather that represents a change from what was experienced earlier in the day, or the day before.

The same dynamic can apply to changes in indoor environments. When people with anxiety issues go to new or different places, they may find themselves feeling cold and shivery, or hot and sweaty. They might feel like the room is excessively stuffy or that the lights are too bright.

Feelings such as these create uncertainty, and out of that uncertainty anxiety can intensify to the point where it becomes all-encompassing. If exposure to new people occurs simultaneously with the environmental changes, the tendency to react anxiously can become even stronger.

#7 A Lack of Food or Sleep

A person who hasn’t eaten or slept properly may experience a broad range of physical symptoms that could just as easily be caused by anxiety. This can include shakiness or jitteriness, lightheadedness or dizziness, difficulties focusing or concentrating, physical pains or muscle tension, or obsessive thoughts about the troubling symptoms they’ve been experiencing.

Because of the overlap in symptoms, men and women who are prone to anxiety attacks will be reminded of these tendencies when they experience symptoms like these, regardless of their initiating source. People who feel weak or sick from a lack of food or sleep are at risk for anxiety attacks, which opportunistically develop when a person is not at their best.

#8 Being Required To Speak in Public or in Front of Others

Anxiety is driven by a fear of both the known and the unknown. Fresh exposures to things that provoked anxiety in the past can trigger new attacks, but exposure to brand new situations with unpredictable or uncertain elements can also lay the groundwork for an unpleasant anxiety attack.

Both sides of the equation apply to public speaking, broadly defined to formal or informal public presentations made in family, work, educational, or interpersonal environments where the person with the anxiety issues knows they will be at least momentarily the center of attention. People prone to anxiety attacks struggle mightily with these types of situations, which contain elements of both the familiar (they remember how uncomfortable they were in similar circumstances) and the unfamiliar (such events inevitably create circumstances where they will be judged or evaluated by new people).

This combination of the familiar and unfamiliar, each of which is threatening in this instance, can be a powerful trigger for anxiety attacks.

Anxiety Attacks as a Sign of an Underlying Disorder

Anxiety attacks are a manifestation of serious underlying issues, which is why so many of their most common triggers are self-generated.

When someone has a history of anxiety attacks, there is a high likelihood that deeper emotional or psychological problems are lurking underneath the surface, undetected and untreated. Anxiety attacks are warning signs and they are also a cry for help, and if the warning is ignored and the cry goes unheeded, it can lead to years of additional suffering, unhappiness, and underachievement.

People who have chronic anxiety attacks should be evaluated by a trained mental health professional, who will know how to diagnose the conditions that might be causing their anxiety. Some of the disorders that can produce anxiety attacks include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobias, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Depression is another potential complicating issue, as studies have shown that up to 70 percent of people with depressive disorders will also meet the symptomatic criteria for at least one anxiety disorder.

Diagnostic procedures administered by mental health professionals can identify these conditions, and the information obtained can be used to create a customized recovery plan that deals with both the anxiety symptoms and their root causes. In addition to therapy, a recovery routine for anxiety or trauma disorders may include anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications, which have a proven track record when used to counteract the most debilitating symptoms of chronic anxiety.

Anxiety attacks are a side effect of neglected mental health problems, and if the neglect is replaced by acknowledgement and comprehensive care, long-term recovery is possible. The best chance for wellness is through a 30- to 90-day residential treatment program, which will give the recovering individual the time and space they need to really focus on getting healthy.

While anxiety can steal hope, expert professional care can restore it, energize it, and unleash it.