Staging Anxiety to Uncover Your… | Counseling | Therapy

Staging Anxiety to Uncover Your Triggers

Alex Robboy , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director


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Categorizing Anxiety: Anxiety Therapy in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Providence, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe image

Center for Growth / Anxiety Treatment in Philadelphia- Staging Anxiety to Uncover Your Triggers: anxiety can be a debilitating diagnosis for many of its victims. Often, it feels as though it strikes without warning, leaving them fearful of everyday activities and routine, particularly outside the home. But does anxiety really give no sign or clue that it is about to occur? Is there no way to recognize when an attack is on its way?

Anxiety may seem as though it follows no rhyme or reason, but the truth is that anxiety often occurs as a result of certain circumstances. These circumstances are called ‘triggers’ because they trigger the anxious physiological response in people with clinical anxiety. Everyone who suffers with anxiety has these triggers, and everyone can learn to identify them and utilize them as a way to counteract the anxiety reaction. However, learning and recognizing your individual triggers can be half the battle.

If you or someone you know struggles to cope with anxiety, try to identify current triggers by staging an anxiety attack. Sit down alone, or with a trusted partner, and be sure to have a pen and paper handy to make notes. Consider your most recent anxiety symptoms. Did they happen while alone or in a public setting? Was it morning or night? Were you tired, awake, ill or feeling any other particular physical sensations? What occurred just before the onset of anxiety? A phone call, a meeting, anything noteworthy? Perhaps you were watching television. What happened on the TV just before your attack? Have your partner or yourself jot down any and all observations made during this time. Use these notes to put yourself, either physically or mentally, in the place you were or are most likely to experience an anxiety attack.

Now, try and remember the sensations you felt as they began to occur. Anxiety may feel like it comes all at once, but often there are subtle chronological stages that can be helpful for identifying triggers and signaling an attack. Maybe your palms got sweaty, or you felt restless and began to pace, fidget, or tap your pencil. Did your stomach tighten? Did you feel nauseous, hot, or cold? Take yourself through each of the physical and mental symptoms as you experienced them. Feel yourself experiencing them now. Allow yourself to go through each of the motions and emotions. Having someone trusted there with you is recommended during this time in order to maintain some control. If alone, be sure you are in a comfortable place, near a phone, and perhaps keep something close to comfort yourself afterwards or if the feelings become too intense.

Use the sights, sounds, smells, and all other sensations you made note of previously to trigger this attack. Perhaps your partner can bring them up for you one by one, either by mentioning them or simulating them in some other way. With your partner’s help or with your nearby pen and paper, record your reaction to these items. Is it stronger or weaker when a specific person, place, or thing is mentioned? Perhaps your own reactions play a role. Does a specific action or feeling arouse a greater or lesser sense of anxiety? For example, does remaining still or seated make you feel more tense, maybe even trapped? Does this heighten your experience of the anxiety? If you get up or move around does the anxiety in turn lessen or feel less threatening?

Any clues you can gain from this staged anxiety attack can be crucial the next time you encounter your symptoms spontaneously. Don’t underestimate anything you experience during this time. Trust your symptoms to guide you to the proper triggers. Think of your body and anxiety as a barometer in this controlled, staged environment to communicate to you where your triggers lie. Don’t feel silly or embarrassed to admit any of your triggers. Anxiety does not have to make sense. You are not attempting to understand why your triggers are what they are at this time; you are only trying to identify them.

When you are finished and the exercise feels complete, reward yourself with something comforting. Treat yourself to any tools you have thus far to help you relax, a hot cup of tea or a certain activity; but be sure that you record any and all pertinent information before the experience is too far behind you and something may be forgotten. After you are calm and collected, go over your notes with your partner or alone. Listen to yours and their observations. You should see a pattern emerging, a set of items or actions that either engage or accelerate your anxiety symptoms. Congratulations, you have just uncovered at least some of your triggers!

Being aware of these triggers can be crucial to coping with your anxiety symptoms. The next time they occur naturally you will have the opportunity to see your attack approaching before it hits. It is a signal for you to engage in comforting behavior or enlist the help of your anti-anxiety tools. In this way you can learn to bypass an attack altogether or weaken it substantially at the very least.

Some triggers may even be things that are best and easily avoided until your anxiety is under control. For example, you may find that scary movies or intense television shows are a poor choice when stress is already apparent. Instead, choosing soothing music or calming action is the way to entertain yourself after a long or difficult day.

Whatever you discover, pat yourself on the back for having the courage to face your anxiety and utilize it as a means to recovery. Occasionally, you may choose to repeat the process in order to identify new triggers as they develop. Later, you can learn to focus on positive, affirming triggers that you create to lift the stress load throughout the day. For now, rest assured knowing that your anxiety is not sneaking up on you in the dark. You are learning how to see it approaching so that you can change course and avoid another head-on anxiety collision.

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