A reader asks:
One of the main obstacles I face recently is a heightened amount of anxiety without reason. I am able to cope with it, but it strikes me as odd that I’m noticing this increase of feeling anxiety for what seems like no apparent reason or trigger.
There will always be times when you feel anxious (or angry, or sad, or ashamed) and don’t understand why. Uncertainty, including about our own emotions, is inevitable.
And even though there are ways to get better at understanding what causes your anxiety, you don’t want to fall into the trap of expecting that you should always be able to identify the source of your anxiety—a belief that is as unrealistic as it is unhelpful.
That said, it can be helpful to understand where your anxiety comes from. And you can get better at becoming more aware of how your anxiety works—including what tends to trigger it and what the causes are.
Here are a few things to keep in mind…
Just because you don’t notice a reason for anxiety doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
Emotional awareness is a skill. And if I’m honest, most of us aren’t that good at it for the simple reason that we don’t practice it that much.
As an analogy, consider your ability to notice a key change while listening to a song on the radio… How often do you notice key changes in music? Unless you’re a musician, probably not very often. And yet, they do happen frequently.
So, while you might experience anxiety for no apparent reason, don’t assume that means there isn’t one. But at the same time, don’t insist that you must find the reason.
Curiosity is the healthy middle between ignorance and obsession.
Anything can trigger anxiety, but only thoughts cause it.
Imagine you’re driving to work…
- You see a billboard with a woman smiling, which reminds you that you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, which then triggers you to feel anxious.
- Did the billboard cause you to feel anxious? Of course not!
- The billboard triggered a thought: “I haven’t been to the dentist in a while.” But even this thought probably wasn’t the cause of your anxiety.
- Most likely, you had another thought directly after that one about what not going to the dentist for a while means… Maybe it was “Ugh… I’ll probably have more cavities.” Or maybe something like “Great, I’m going to need a bunch of work done and it’s going to be really expensive.” These are the thoughts that cause you to feel anxious.
Triggers don’t cause anxiety. It’s our thoughts about what the triggers mean that makes us feel anxious.
Don’t assume uncomfortable body sensations mean you’re anxious
The physical symptoms of anxiety are some of the most common and non-specific you can imagine: muscle tension, changes to your breathing, stomach discomfort, etc.
While these are symptoms of anxiety, they’re also symptoms of about 200 other things, which means it’s a mistake to assume that because you’re feeling them you must be anxious.
A common example of this mistake is coffee…
- For many people, caffeine—or too much of it—can lead to some uncomfortable body changes like increased heart rate, jitteriness, or lightheadedness.
- But coffee doesn’t make you anxious. It can make you feel jittery or lightheaded, but it’s perfectly possible to be jittery and lightheaded without feeling anxious.
- Most people who get anxious after they drink “too much” coffee don’t realize it but it’s their mistaken belief that feeling jittery (or whatever) means they’re anxious that is itself the cause of their anxiety.
People with chronic anxiety are often A) hypersensitive to changes in body sensations and B) have a tendency to catastrophize what those changes mean.
But you can become less anxious over time by acknowledging those body changes without jumping to conclusions about what they mean—including that you’re anxious.
How you respond to anxiety matters much more than what caused it
Ultimately, try to avoid getting too caught up in the causes of your anxiety (or any other uncomfortable emotion).
A little bit of awareness and introspection about the causes of anxiety can be helpful, but it’s not necessary for responding to it in a healthy way.
Difficult emotions like anxiety are like the weather—getting rained on may or may not be pleasant. But regardless of why it’s raining, what matters is that you deal with it well instead of standing in a downpour shaking your fist at the sky.