Anxiety

10 Unexpected Things That May be Triggering Your Anxiety

Trying to do all the things. Lack of self care. Not sleeping enough. These are things that you may be able to pinpoint as anxiety triggers. Heck, even a lack of mindfulness in your life may be obvious to you (if not, that’s OK too).

But did you know that there may be other things that may not be so obvious that are triggering your anxiety?

Here’s the deal. As someone with a generalized anxiety disorder with an OCD component (mostly for obsessive thoughts), I don’t buy into the notion that I will ever be ‘cured’. There may be periods of my life where it affects me more than others, but it will always be there. But boy oh boy did it take me a long time to get to that belief.

For my entire life, up until a year or so ago, I was searching for that cure. I remember repeatedly telling my therapist and psychologist that I wanted my anxiety to go away completely. That I want to never have anxious/obsessive/intrusive thoughts again.

And I would get frustrated when they wouldn’t reassure me that that would be the case! I could never understand why I couldn’t be ‘cured’.

Fast forward approximately a year later, and I realize that I don’t think I’ll ever be cured. And while it may seem like I’m being a downer, I don’t see it as that. I see it as I am accepting my reality as it is right now, and not fighting the anxiety. Fighting the anxiety only made it worse. I think of it as I was giving it power by trying to just ‘get rid of it’ and not actually work through it. I wasn’t learning how to manage it (which is what my therapist and psychologist were trying to show me).

how to reduce

Once I accepted my reality that I would likely always deal with anxiety in some manner, I was then able to focus on learning how to manage it.

Additionally – (and this is the importance piece) – I was able to discover certain triggers that had always been there, by the way, and learn how to avoid them. I learned how to set my body and my mind up for success in managing my anxiety.

This has been KEY for me. And I want it to be that way for you as well.

In this post, I’m sharing 10 unexpected things that may be triggering your anxiety. These are all things that I found to be triggering mine. This post is not to make you feel guilty or make you feel like you have to deprive yourself, OR, make you feel like you need to change your entire life just to manage anxiety.

This post is to share what I found to be unexpected triggers, to see if you’ve maybe noticed them as well. Or, maybe you haven’t even thought of these things as potential triggers, and you want to try one or two things to see if they help.

There is no feeling guilty here – we are all learning and doing what we can.

Without further ado –

Here are 10 unexpected things that may be triggering your anxiety.


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Caffeine

Starting out with a tough one! Go big or go home, am I right?

As much as I hate to admit, my beloved cup (or two or three) of joe in the morning was causing major anxiety for me. I could literally pinpoint the time of day (3pm and after) that I would start experiencing anxious, intrusive, and obsessive thoughts on the days that I had caffeine.

Why does this happen?

Caffeine is literally a mood altering drug.

“…caffeine works by blocking the depressant function of a chemical called adenosine…For {some}, the result is a pleasurable sense of energy and focus. For those with anxiety, caffeine’s effects can be taken as signs of impending doom. Once that happens, anxiety can take on a life of its own.” (source)

Look, I love coffee and tea. LOVEEEEEEEEE coffee and tea. Once I identified this as a trigger, I tried to tell myself that it would be OK to keep drinking it because I would know why I was having anxious/intrusive/obsessive thoughts.

And that may be true when I’m NOT experiencing those things.

But when I am?

It doesn’t matter what caused them. What matters is that I have to experience them, and they really suck. And at that point in time, caffeine is just not worth it (at least for me personally).

Instead, I drink decaf coffee and herbal or green tea (I usually can get away with black tea as well). Every once in a while I find I can enjoy a caffeinated mocha and it won’t bother me too much. But if you go this route, you’ll want to play around and see what works for you.


Alcohol

Yep – let’s get this one out of the way while we’re on the topic of beverages.

Alcohol can also be a trigger for anxiety, although maybe not in the way you’d expect. At first, having a glass of wine or beer may make you feel good. Relaxed. This is because “alcohol is a sedative and a depressant that affects the central nervous system.” (source)

But after the ‘buzz’ wears off, you can often feel worse.

According to one source:

“Alcohol changes levels of serotonin {the feel good chemical} and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. In fact, you may feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off.

Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours, or even for an entire day after drinking.”

One other piece about alcohol – while having a drink or two before bed can help you fall asleep, it does impact your sleep (and not for the better). And not getting enough sleep is DEFINITELY a known anxiety trigger!

While I personally haven’t completely cut out alcohol, I have significantly cut back to where I maybe have one drink a month.

Another piece of alcohol is that drinks often have a lot of sugar. Which leads me to the next trigger…


Sugar

Oh man. The sweet tooth in me still cries over this one. I LOVEEEEE sugar. But sugar is NOT good for anxiety. In fact, this is often one of the worst triggers for me.

I look back to my teenage years where I would eat potato cakes, a Kempswich ice cream sandwich, and two chocolate milks for lunch, and mountain dew and macaroni and cheese for dinner, and realize why I had such severe anxiety (obviously not the only cause, but certainly didn’t help).

The reason sugar can be a trigger for anxiety is similar to caffeine. “Sugar can cause blurry vision, difficulty thinking and fatigue, all of which may be interpreted as signs of a panic attack, thereby increasing worry and fear. A sugar high and subsequent crash can cause shaking and tension, which can make anxiety worse.” (source)

While I haven’t cut out sugar completely, I do try to limit it, and try not to eat it multiple days in a row. I’ve found eating it here and there is much easier to manage.

Lack of exercise

We all know that exercise is beneficial to our physical health, but did you know that it is also great for mental health?

It’s true!

Why?

“Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.” (source)

Additionally, “…exercise also decreases sensitivity to the body’s reaction to anxiety, as well as decreases the intensity and frequency of panic attacks in some cases.” (source)

I try to get outside for a walk once a day, and go for a run 3x a week. I can definitely tell when I don’t go as much. And winters can be especially hard – I find that my anxiety is usually higher in the winter because I’m not exercising enough nor am I getting out in nature as much (see below).

As I mentioned, walking and running are my go-to’s for exercising. However, for you, it may be yoga and biking. Or just pilates. It doesn’t really matter the type of activity that you do, just that you’re active. The important thing is to find something you enjoy doing so you keep up with it.

And if you find yourself having anxious thoughts? Go for a quick walk, do some stretching, or whatever you enjoy doing, and get those endorphins flowing!


Lack of nature

Have you ever gone outside and just felt your stress/tension/anxiety/etc release? You’re not imagining it. There is research abound on getting out in nature and the benefits to our mental health. And the fascinating thing to me is that there are multiple components of nature that are beneficial – viewing, hearing, and just being in it.

Why does nature have such a positive effect on our minds?

One of the answers has to do with the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has to do with continuous thoughts on negative emotions. When we are experiencing stress or anxiety, this area stops functioning properly, and causes obsessive, negative thoughts (source).

So how does nature help?

According to a study done by Harvard University, “calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.

The visual aspects of nature can also have a soothing effect. Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less filled with worry.”

Can’t get outside? No worries! Research also shows that just viewing a photo of nature can provide some of the same benefits.

This is just one of the reasons I created my 2-minute self-guided mindfulness meditations with nature photography – to incorporate the benefits of nature with meditation!

If you’re interested in learning more about nature and mental health (or just overall health), The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.


Physical clutter

I never realized how much physical clutter can cause anxiety until I got rid of 140 large boxes of stuff (and sold countless more). At the time my son was born (which was right around when I started decluttering), I was someone who could not relax in a cluttered space. I was told over and over again that I would just have to get used to it because with a kid, my house would never be clean again.

And while I appreciate the advice and know it came from a good place, it just simply didn’t work for me. And now there is research to back it up.

Clutter has been shown to:

  • Be a constant source of stimulus
  • Keep us at an elevated state of flight or fight (releasing the stress hormone cortisol)
  • Act as a constant reminder of all the things we ‘need to do’
  • Create emotions such as guilt and embarrassment
  • Keep us overwhelmed


I don’t know about you, but all of those things don’t sound peaceful or enjoyable. If your brain is constantly stimulated and kept at an elevated fight or flight state, that means you’re always slightly anxious. I look at it as already being one step closer to a panic or anxiety attack than normal.

Getting rid of clutter can seem incredibly overwhelming. Trust me, I get it. But isn’t your mental health worth it?

Bonus – getting rid of stuff frees up not only mental space, but also time, money, and more! It’s a win, win, win.

Here are some resources to get started on decluttering:





Hormones

I’m going to come right out and say that I am not a doctor. Therefore, I’m not going to spend much time talking about hormones. However, I just know that personally, I know that when I’m on my period, I find a couple of days that I am just really anxious for no apparent reason. Add in to that my craving chocolate and all things sugar (if I indulge), and it’s an anxious mess.

The book The Chemistry of Calm by Henry Emmons M.D. is a great book to talk about different types of foods and supplements you can take to help regulate your body’s processes. Of course, before you make any dietary change or start taking supplements, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor.

I’m still doing my own research about ways I can set my body up for success during my period, so I’ll be sure to update this post as I learn more! If you have any resources I should check out, let me know in the comments!


Too much time on social media

Social media is great. It’s a great way to connect with others and learn from them too. The problem with social media? It can cause a lot of negative thoughts and emotions, and can easily become addictive.

How, you ask?


Every time we get a ‘like’ or ‘double tap’, comment, email, or tag, a small amount of dopamine (another feel good chemical) gets released in our brains. Our body and mind looooves that dopamine, which triggers us to check our social media or email over and over again, just to get that little hit.

Pretty soon, we’re checking our phones every 12 minutes. Seriously.

So what does this have to do with anxiety?

Although our body and mind loves the dopamine release, when we don’t get those likes, comments, emails or tags, we feel a little let down.

Additionally, too much social media can lead down the comparison trap – where you compare a piece of someone’s best life that they’re showcasing on social media to yours. You can also feel lonely, sad, or depressed if you see a situation that you wish you were part of (aka fear of missing out). This could be intentional in the sense of not being able to go to a movie with a group of friends because you had to work, to unintentional where a group of friends went out for drinks without you.

Finally, the University of Chicago found that social media is “more addictive than cigarettes, and harder to abstain from than a cocktail might be”.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “social media anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that is similar to social anxiety disorder” in which we get anxious when we can’t check email or social media.

If you want some assistance with detoxing and/or detaching from social media, check out my post on how to do that here. In the post, I share tips that I use when I need a break.


Consuming too much news

Do you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed over news stories? You’re not alone. I find that personally, news stories can be especially triggering for me. Depending on what the news story is, my reaction to it can lead me to not want to go to specific places (or anywhere for that matter), make me want to be more cautious with my son, and more.

I have to be extremely mindful of how much news I consume, and know when to turn it off.

I used to feel bad about not consuming the news constantly, because I felt like it was an obligation to be kept up to date with what was going on in the world and in my community. But at the end of it, I realized that my mental health was more important – and needed – in order for me to be able to be at my best.

There is a ton of research about how news affects our mental health. Here is a great piece about it:

““Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story,” Davey told The Huffington Post. “In particular… negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”

According to Davey, the way that negative news affects your mood can also have a larger affect on how you interpret and interact with the world around you. If it makes you more anxious or sad for instance, then you may subconsciously become more attuned to negative or threatening events, and you may be more likely to see ambiguous or neutral events as negative ones.” (source)

If you want tips on how to detach from the news, but still stay informed, check out 8 of my tips here.

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Environmental issues

Environmental issues and anxiety? Yep!

I have been studying the environment for almost 20 years (seriously) and within the past year, two incredibly defeating reports have come out about the environment. The first on how we have 15 years to try and mitigate the effects of climate change, and the second on how over 1 million species will be going extinct at the cause of humans.

As a mom to a 3-year-old, my anxiety is immediately triggered at news like this, because what kind of world is my son going to have to endure? What are we, as older generations, leaving for our children?

The term for this anxiety is ‘eco-anxiety’, which means: “chronic fear of environmental doom — the concern that increasing human development and pollution are leading us into an inevitable scourge of floods, famines, heat waves, species extinctions, and ultimately, the demise of our planet” (source).

If you find yourself feeling anxious over environmental issues, know that it is a real thing and that you are not alone!

If you want to learn more about eco-anxiety/eco-guilt and how to manage it, check out my post on that topic here.





There you have it! 10 things that may be triggering your anxiety – unexpectedly!




What other ones do you experience?

If you’re looking for ways to manage your anxiety in general, check out my post on 8 lies my anxiety tells me and how I manage them.



If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, depression, or other symptoms that have to do with a mental illness, you are not alone. Please seek help via one of the resources below.  



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Shilpa Gupte
Guest

Hi!
As someone with GAD, I completely agree with you, on all the points you mentioned here. For me, though, instead of alcohol, it’s junk food that I love to indulge in, now and then.
It takes a lot of working and being mindful if one wishes to get this demon called GAD under control, isn’t it? I, too, have days when I am perfectly fine and a master of my anxiety. And, then there are times when I am under control of my GAD.
Acceptance is key and mindfulness is the panacea for anxiety, I believe. 🙂

Clyde
Guest

This is a very helpful article especially for someone who is s experiencing anxiety. It is a serious matter and not everyone understands it. Without understanding the matter, we couldn’t also figure out what leads us to anxiety but in this post you have tackled these things, which we oversee and keep doing them too.

Halle
Guest

100% agree with all of these! I notice when I cut things like caffeine and alcohol out, and increase my exercise, I’m a much more calm person. Love this post! Very informational for those who might not be aware of their triggers!

Samantha
Guest

I’ve cut out alcohol most days lately and feel like it’s already made a big difference to my body! I only drink on weekends, and if I do, it’s one glass of something. I’ve noticed my anxiety is a bit more manageable & I sleep a lot better! Thanks for the great tips.

Stacie
Guest

This is so helpful! I’m going to pin it so I can come back to it when I need to.

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