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Triggers of an Anxiety Attack

Portrait of a young frustrated girl standing in the crowd, headache or anxiety attack, city life problems

Experiencing anxiety now and then is part of life. But anxiety shouldn’t have an ongoing negative effect on your life or prevent you from functioning day-to-day. Anxiety disorders are the leading mental health diagnosis in the United States. For many sufferers, anxiety can lead to anxiety attacks.

What causes anxiety and anxiety attacks vary. Certain events, emotions, places, or situations can increase feelings and symptoms of anxiety. These are triggers. And understanding the triggers of an anxiety attack is essential to learning how to cope with them.

Understanding Anxiety Disorder and Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety is a typical stress response to dangerous or challenging situations such as changing jobs or moving to a new state. It’s your body’s fight-or-flight reaction that keeps you from taking unnecessary risks. It can help you take action, solve problems, and stay alert and focused.

For many, anxiety remains at a level that is helpful instead of harmful. But anxiety becomes a problem when it’s constant, overwhelming, and keeps you from functioning day-to-day as you should. That’s when it becomes an anxiety disorder. 

Some signs of an anxiety disorder include excessive worrying, restlessness, fatigue, disturbed sleep, over or under eating, social avoidance, and anxiety attacks.

An anxiety attack occurs when you’re at a breaking point in your anxiety levels. An anxiety attack is different from a panic attack. A panic attack can happen out of the blue, lasts just a few minutes, and is almost always quite severe. Anxiety attacks are more common and can be less severe. They are often brought on more gradually by something stressful happening in your life.

“Anxiety attacks are frightening for those who experience them,” said Kathy Reynolds, LCSW, Executive Clinical Director at Integrative Life Center. “They make a person feel afraid and out of control, which only heightens their feelings of anxiety.”

Emotions during an anxiety attack include:

  • Apprehension
  • Worry
  • Distress
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Fear

Physical feelings during an anxiety attack include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the throat or feeling like you’re choking
  • Nausea, stomach pain, or upset stomach

What to Do During an Anxiety Attack

During an anxiety attack, you might feel like you don’t have control of the situation, but you do. You can take steps to help alleviate some of the anxiety and stress and reduce the frequency and severity of the attacks. Work with a mental health professional to determine what coping strategies will work best for you and apply them to your treatment plan. Some coping strategies may be participating in hobbies you already enjoy or finding a new passion. 

Ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack:

  • Recognize What’s Happening: It’s frightening to have an anxiety attack because you feel out of control of your body. Often you may even think you’re having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown of some kind. Recognizing that the sensations you’re feeling are an anxiety attack will help you gain some control over it.
  • Find a Private Space: Get to a private place where you feel comfortable and safe, whether in a bedroom, your car, or a public bathroom. It’ll be easier for you to get the anxiety attack under control if it isn’t happening in front of others.
  • Practice Intentional Breathing: Take slow, deep breaths and count to 10. Try to ground yourself by clearing your mind and focusing on positive thoughts. 
  • Focus Your Mind: Focus on the present moment: Try to clear your mind of any regrets from the past or worries about the future. 
  • Communicate: Contact a trusted loved one or mental health professional who can speak to you calmly and rationally and help talk you down from the peak of your anxiety.

“Re-establishing a sense of safety and calm is vital to preventing or stopping an anxiety attack,” Kathy stated. “An important first step is to be able to recognize, ‘I’m having an anxiety attack,’ then take actions to calm your thinking.”

What Does ‘Trigger’ Mean in Mental Health?

During the last few years, the term “trigger” has made its way into the mainstream. You’ve probably seen “trigger warning” or “TW” before watching a video or reading an article online. But what does “trigger” actually mean in mental health?

Triggers are anything that might cause someone to recall a traumatic experience and worsen the symptoms of a mental health disorder. Watching a violent video or hearing loud noises could be triggering, depending on past personal experiences. Triggers can affect your emotional state and your ability to stay in the moment. For those with an anxiety disorder, triggers may cause an anxiety attack.

A young man with both hands on his head having anxiety attack inside of a airplane

Triggers of an Anxiety Attack

Triggers vary greatly depending on each individual. Personal triggers are often based on past traumatic experiences and may be difficult to identify. A mental health professional is trained to help you identify and cope with any personal triggers. There are also some common, yet often overlooked, triggers among people with anxiety disorders that can cause or worsen symptoms.


Many people rely on their morning cup of coffee to wake up. But everyone reacts differently to its effects. Caffeine can trigger or worsen anxiety symptoms, especially in those with preexisting anxiety disorders. Drinking less or eliminating caffeine can help to reduce anxiety. Try substituting decaffeinated options when possible.

Messy Home

To some, a messy home is fine. But for others, it can greatly increase feelings of anxiety. When tasks such as cleaning and tidying aren’t done, they linger in the back of your mind. Incremental changes like tidying up regularly can help reduce your anxiety.

Meal Skipping

When you don’t eat, your blood sugar drops. Your body responds by releasing stress hormones like cortisol to increase energy. This increased stress can trigger anxiety attacks. Try eating three balanced meals a day and always keep snacks handy so you don’t get too hungry. Remember that what you eat can also affect your mood. Make sure you get the right nutrients in your diet. And avoid excessive amounts of sugar and fried foods.

Social Events

Social anxiety is an extremely common type of anxiety. If you have social anxiety, being around large crowds or having to make small talk with strangers can be triggering. Social situations may cause you to feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or fearful of judgment.

You can ease your social anxiety by taking a close friend or companion with you to social occasions. Taking a trusted other along will help you feel more secure. You can also work with a mental health professional to find the coping mechanisms that work best for you. 

Relationship Problems

Arguments or disagreements that create conflict are common anxiety triggers. These disagreements maybe with your partner, family, friends, or coworkers. Conflict can put a lot of stress on your relationships and result in you feeling worried and distressed. Learning conflict resolution strategies can help ease anxiety and help to salvage your relationships. Therapy is great for learning how to deal with conflict.

Test Taking

Test-taking is another common trigger of anxiety attacks. Tests may be a trigger due to a lack of preparation or a fear of failure. Using resources such as test preparation programs or studying to prepare can help limit testing anxiety.

Financial Difficulties

Living with debt, losing a job, unexpected bills, or having an unstable income are all factors that can trigger anxiety. Creating a financial plan, speaking with a financial advisor, or talking to family or friends can help lessen your financial worries.


Becoming a parent is a huge life event. But it can also lead to intense fear and anxiety. As a parent, there are a lot of things to worry about — your child’s health, education, social relationships, and so much more.

Cope with the stress of parenthood by talking to someone, such as your partner, a friend, other parents, or a therapist. And be sure to take help when offered. Being there for your child is important, but so is your mental health.


Getting a challenging medical diagnosis can be deeply upsetting and may trigger anxiety attacks. Equally, the diagnosis or illness of a loved one can also increase anxiety. Your physician should be able to recommend the appropriate therapies and resources you need. Stay engaged with your doctor, accept that you can’t control everything, and try to stay positive as much as possible.

Triggers of Anxiety Attacks are Personal

Knowing your triggers is the best way to mitigate your anxiety and lessen the chances of an anxiety attack. Understanding someone else’s triggers is also key to supporting a loved one suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Some ways to identify your triggers are:

  • Writing in a Journal: Whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious, write it down in a journal. Use this journal to look for patterns.
  • Working with a Therapist: A mental health professional can help you identify your triggers.
  • Exploring your Past: Past trauma can be the root of many mental health issues, including anxiety. Take a step back and look at the whole picture to see where your triggers may have originated.
  • Be Honest and Patient with Yourself: Since anxiety can often feed into poor self-assessment, you must be patient with yourself to clearly identify your triggers. 

How ILC Can Help

When anxiety attacks become chronic it’s time to seek help. It’s essential to identify the root causes of your anxiety to treat it properly. 

Working with a mental health professional can help you identify your triggers and learn coping strategies to handle them when they occur. If you’re ready to break free from anxiety and move forward in life, then we have an anxiety treatment program you can trust. Contact ILC today to learn more about how you can get the treatment you need to end the cycle of anxiety.

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