I sat at my desk, one finger pressed up against my eyelid. It wouldn’t stop twitching, and it was driving me nuts. Feeling concerned and annoyed because it was hindering my productivity, I went to see my eye doctor. He suspected that anxiety caused it. This was a frustrating answer.
The frustrating part was that in order to eliminate the twitch, I’d need to eliminate the anxiety—but I couldn’t do that if I didn’t know what was causing it. So I had to learn to identify my anxiety triggers, and you can, too. Here’s how.
1. Keep tabs on your symptoms.
Start paying attention to your symptoms. The most obvious symptoms are usually physical, like my eye twitch that couldn’t be ignored. For a list of common symptoms, click here. There are also cognitive symptoms, like a lack of concentration or racing thoughts, and behavioral symptoms, like irritability or restlessness.
Get a journal and establish three set times each day to check in with your anxiety. Record the date, time, and symptoms. Then stop and think: are the symptoms better or worse than earlier? Use a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I feel no symptoms whatsoever” and 10 being “the symptoms are so extreme that I cannot function right now.” We all experience anxiety from time to time, but if it’s interfering with daily functionality, it needs our attention.
2. Identify your “Bolt of Lightning” Triggers.
Immediate triggers are stressful things that happen at a distinct time, causing your anxiety to skyrocket. These moments can be easy to pinpoint—a demanding email from a boss, a realization that there’s a conflict on the calendar, or getting a call from the principal. Things like this often feel like a bolt of lightning.
In these moments, the first step is to breathe. Take slow, deliberate breaths in, hold them for a second, and exhale slowly. It may feel awkward at first, but you will begin to take yourself out of “fight or flight” mode.
3. Identify your “Slow Boil” Triggers.
Delayed triggers are stressful situations that you’ve been enduring for a longer period of time, such as a rocky relationship with a close relative or prolonged financial stress. Pause and think about whether there’s a stressful situation looming in the background. Is there an experience from last week or last month that your mind is “stuck” thinking about? These feel like a slow boil, heating you up gradually over time until you finally bubble over with anxiety.
We often respond the same way over and over when it comes to the slow boil triggers, and we feel helpless to control the situation. Sometimes an honest conversation needs to happen, sharing your true feelings with the other person. Other times, we need more boundaries.
4. Identify your “Self-Care” Triggers.
Sometimes the trigger can be as simple as hunger, exhaustion, or loneliness. Perhaps you need to get a babysitter, go out for coffee with a friend, or put everyone to bed early (including yourself)! Sometimes the need is spiritual. I lay down my worries through prayer. We need to slow down long enough to realize we have these needs and to do something about them.
5. Ask someone you trust to help you identify your triggers.
Proceed with caution. You may not enjoy letting someone else pointing out your triggers, but sometimes a spouse or best friend can see them when we do not. It’s the same as with our children. We can clearly see that they need to take a nap while they protest, “I’m not tired!” Anxiety can skew our perceptions of reality and we need someone to bring us back down to earth in a loving, gentle way.
Anxiety can skew our perceptions of reality and we need someone to bring us back down to earth in a loving, gentle way.
Other times, a counselor or other professional is the best option—someone who is trained to help you identify anxiety triggers and present coping strategies. Check with your local church for help finding a counselor.
What are your anxiety triggers and how have you learned to cope with them in healthy ways?