Anxiety Triggers: When The List Is Growing

Many members of our community will find that over time their list of anxiety triggers or panic attack triggers is growing. More and more things become triggers, which starts to get frustrating and disheartening.  Let’s talk about why that happens, and what it means in the recovery process.

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Remember that panic disorder – and most anxiety disorders – are based on developing a fear of the anxious state itself. The symptoms of panic. The anxious thoughts.  The feelings of doom and danger. Those things are the things we begin to fear.

When we fear those things, we begin to stay on high alert all the time, checking for signs of anxiety and panic. We dial in our focus, paying very close attention to what our bodies are doing, the thoughts our minds are producing, and the emotions we are experiencing.

Since we’re paying close attention to things we normally would not be paying any real attention to, every sensation, thought, and emotion becomes amplified. Have you ever noticed that when you are anxious you feel EVERY itch, tingle, twitch, or subtle change of temperature in your body?  How about that thing where a slight change in mood is suddenly turned into an emergency based on your fear that you might become depressed, even though you exhibit no signs of depression right now.

When in that hypersensitive mode always on the lookout for things that might lead  or even look or feel like anxiety or panic – any sensation, thought, emotion, or experience –  can be swiftly interpreted as danger by your overactive lizard brain, and suddenly your list of anxiety and panic triggers starts to grow.  One day you wake up and discover that a smell that you don’t expect or a breeze that gives you a chill, or your partner not loading the dishwasher correctly, or a sad story on the news will send you into the dreaded anxiety and panic spiral.

You will be tempted to throw up your hands and proclaim that EVERYTHING is a trigger now and you do not know why or how this happened to you!

Guess what?  This still doesn’t mean that you’re broken or unique or beyond hope. You’re afraid, and you’d rather not be afraid, so you’ve become afraid of anything that might make you feel that afraid feeling.  It’s all quite circular and meta, isn’t it?

If you find that you are in this situation where your brain decides that everything and anything is a good reason to panic and go into fight or flight mode, know that it’s not just you. It’s the logical progression of disordered anxiety in many many cases. It’s exactly what leads to a wider and wider range of avoidance and “early detection” habits all designed to stay far away from those horrible triggers and the scary inner experience they produce.

Remember this. It’s not the breeze. It’s not the scent. It’s not the twitch in your left thigh. It’s not suddenly feeling cold, or getting into an argument with your best friend. It’s none of those things. It’s really just one thing.  Your anxious brain has decided that any feeling that doesn’t seem right or feels a bit too big is “too much” and is cause for alarm.  So do not worry or focus too much on trying to figure out every trigger or engineer ways to avoid them all one by one. This is how you wind up stuck in a very small or highly restricted life.

Instead, recognize that what you fear is the internal state – fear, anxiety, uncertainty, discomfort, and distress – that those triggers create in you. The internal experience is the thing, not the event or input that causes it. When triggered, it’s time to practice that new reaction and relationship with that uncomfortable experience. Rather than focusing on eliminating triggers or trying to force your body and brain to not react by trying to hack your brain or micromanage your gut biome, what if the way forward was to take this framework and use it to inform a new way to react to how you feel when triggered?

We talk all the time on this podcast about learning how to drop safety behaviors, escape behaviors, safe people, and crutches so we can learn to fully face and practice tolerating and navigating through those scary, challenging, distressing moments. There’s a ton of content in my old episodes, the books I’ve written, and in my social media feeds that speak to this.

For today, and for the purposes of this episode, let’s just leave here with the intent to take a few minutes to sit quietly and really open ourselves up to this way of looking at triggers and why your list of them is getting longer and longer. You may have felt like this was some out of control process that was slowly taking over you and your entire life, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an anxious brain being too overzealous when trying to keep you safe and alive – the job it was designed to do. 

What if instead of finding 1000 ways to avoid triggers, engineer your life around them, and micromanage your body and brain, you had to instead embrace one concept and work on learning and executing a simpler – but difficult plan? 

How would your life change?

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Disclaimer: The Anxious Truth is not therapy or a replacement for therapy. Listening to The Anxious Truth does not create a therapeutic relationship between you and the host or guests of the podcast. Information here is provided for psychoeducational purposes. As always, when you have questions about your own well-being, please consult your mental health and/or medical care providers. If you are having a mental health crisis, always reach out immediately for in-person help.

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Recovery tips. Updates on recovery resources. Encouragement. Inspiration. Empowerment. All delivered to your inbox! Subscribe here FREE.

Helpful Recovery Resources:

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)





Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.