18 Everyday Things That Could Trigger Anxiety
If you’re late for an appointment or about to meet your new boss, it’s clear why you’re anxious. But if you feel nervous, worried, and even panicked for no reason, these surprising everyday habits could be to blame.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults—18 percent of the population—every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). We all get anxious over certain circumstances (say, a big presentation at work), but if you’re experiencing feelings of nervousness or unease for no apparent reason, one of these subtle, everyday triggers might be to blame. Here’s what you need to know about managing those triggers and preventing your feelings from escalating. And don’t miss these expert tips for understanding anxiety and panic disorder.
You drank too much coffee
“We think nothing of that extra cup of coffee, but caffeine makes the body nervous and jittery and triggers the fight or flight response,” explains Nikki Martinez, a psychologist who practices in Chicago, Illinois. Overdoing it on the lattés and espressos has been shown to produce symptoms that are indistinguishable from an anxiety disorder, according to a study from the British Journal of Psychiatry. Anxiety symptoms are just one of the 7 signs that can reveal whether you’re drinking too much coffee.
You’re getting breaking news alerts all day long
“Our 24/7 news is terrible for our country’s stress level,” says Beth Salcedo, MD, a psychiatrist and the Medical Director of The Ross Center. Most of the stories are focused on violence, war, and anger, often leaving the audience feeling rattled. But that doesn’t mean you need to tune out entirely to what’s going on in the world. Rather, Dr. Salcedo recommends checking in on the news just once a day.
A pounding headache and nausea aren’t the only after-effects of drinking too much. Excess alcohol is one of the main triggers of anxiety, according to research published in the journal Nature: Neuroscience, as heavy drinking can rewire the brain and make you more susceptible to anxiety disorders. Alcohol is also known to disrupt your sleep, and sleep deprivation can boost your anxiety levels, according to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
You’ve taken medicine
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If you’re sick and wondering to yourself, “Why do I feel anxious?” look no further than that over-the-counter medication on your nightstand. “It’s important to read ingredients,” says New York-based neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez. “Things like acetaminophen, doxylamine succinate, which is a sedating antihistamine, and dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, all can trigger anxiety and a general on-edge feeling.”
If you’re not drinking enough water, you’re going to have more than just a parched mouth. Even mild dehydration can trigger disturbances in mood, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition. Other research looks at what happens when you change the typical amount of water people drink. The study published in PLoS One found that increasing water intake for people who normally don’t drink much benefited their mood. And the decrease in water for people that are used to drinking more also reduced feelings of calmness and positive emotions. It’s important to stay hydrated by drinking water at meals and throughout the day to prevent feeling off-balanced. (Here’s how you can tell the difference between anxiety and depression.)
Your blood sugar is low
We’ve all heard that you can get “hangry” from not eating (that’s an unfortunate blend of hungry and angry), but you can also feel anxious as well. “People who are under stress and have anxiety often feel that their appetite shuts down,” says Dr. Hafeez. “However, skipping meals leads to a drop in blood sugar, which only keeps the anxious feelings going. It creates a vicious cycle.”
Your diet is unbalanced
Falling down on the job of getting all your nutrients, especially B vitamins, can wreak havoc on your mood and make you feel anxiety for seemingly no reason. “Studies have shown that diets lacking in beef, pork, chicken, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, and eggs can lead to depression,” says Hafeez. “People who suddenly drop these foods out of their diets can feel anxious and irritable.” There are several diet additions that can be used for natural anxiety relief.
You’re always plugged in
Facebook and Instagram can be fun, but spending too much time on online social networks can become a source of your anxiety. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry on teens and young adults looked at time spent on social media, TVs, and computers. They found that the more time kids spent looking at screens the more severe their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another study from the non-profit Anxiety UK also found that a majority of social-media users negatively compare themselves to others, get stressed when social media isn’t available, and even have difficulties sleeping after browsing social media.
It’s Sunday night
Of all the anxiety causes, it wouldn’t quite seem like the day of the week would matter, but that dreaded end of the weekend can impact our well-being. “It’s common for people to feel anxious or get the ‘Sunday Blues’ as the weekend winds down in anticipation of the workweek ahead,” Dr. Hafeez says. “When your mind begins to focus on reports, kids’ activities, and the long list of to-do’s, it’s easy to slip into an anxious state of mind.”
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Intense heat can make anyone irritable. It dehydrates you, drains your energy, and destroys your ability to focus. Sweltering temperatures can also speed up your breathing and your heart rate—symptoms that are reminiscent of a panic attack, says psychiatrist Beth Salcedo, MD, the Medical Director of The Ross Center. And once your body notices these physiological symptoms, you may start feeling anxious and experience actual panic. If that happens, take a few calming breaths and get somewhere you can cool off.
You skipped the gym
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We’ve all been there. Missing an occasional exercise session is nothing to panic about, but if you regularly struggle to stick to a schedule, it could be messing with your mood. After all, physical activity boosts mental health in a variety of ways, including potentially warding off symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a meta-analysis published in Cochrane Systematic Review. Plus, the endorphins your brain releases when you exercise will help stave off these 7 signs of a high functioning anxiety disorder.
You’ve committed to more than you can handle
Tonight you’ve got to prepare for a big project at work, pick up the kids from soccer, clean the house from top to bottom, and make cookies for the school bake sale. Sound familiar? “Overscheduling yourself typically leads to excessive stress, which is a setup for anxiety,” Dr. Salcedo says. Try to be honest with yourself (and others) about what you can realistically handle and how much time you’ll need to get it done.
You’re spending too much time alone
A little “me time” is a good thing—but make sure you’re getting in some breaks with loved ones, too. “I always say anxiety loves to fill up an empty room,” Dr. Salcedo says. “If you’re unoccupied, your anxiety has space to grow.” If being alone makes you feel uneasy, distract yourself by making plans with a friend.
You’ve been inside for too long
Even if you’re not the outdoorsy type, it’s good to get a little fresh air once in a while. In fact, a 2019 experiment published in the journal Scientific Reports found that spending time in nature can boost your physical and mental energy by as much as 40 percent while spending time inside has the opposite effect. Plus, sunlight provides us with vitamin D, which some research shows protects against depression. Stuck indoors? Surround yourself with a few plants or even photos of nature.
You’re always the last to arrive
Are you that person who’s always texting to say they’re 15 minutes late? Not planning enough time to get to your destination can take a serious toll on your mental health. “People who chronically run late are often scattered and anxious as a result,” Dr. Salcedo says. Try this: Plan to be everywhere 15 minutes early, whether you’re catching a train or visiting a friend.
You’re not getting enough sleep
It’s an endless cycle: Stress and anxiety can cause sleeping problems, but a lack of sleep can also cause anxiety, according to the ADAA. Plus, if insomnia becomes chronic, the ADAA says it can increase a person’s risk of developing depression or anxiety disorders. Some options to help calm your brain before going to bed include reading a book, meditating for a few minutes, or writing down your to-do list for the next day. If all else fails and you still struggle to sleep, or with any of these 9 anxiety disorder symptoms, you may want to see a specialist, who can help you get back to a healthy sleep schedule.
You live in a city
Sure, loud noises and pushy crowds can leave you stressed. But even if the chaos of urban life doesn’t bother you, the air you breathe could still be to blame for your increased stress or discomfort. In a study published in British Medical Journal, researchers looked at more than 71,000 women and found that those who were living 50 to 200 meters from a major roadway were more likely to experience anxiety than those who lived more than 200 meters away—and they speculate that air pollution was to blame.
You’re surrounded by clutter
A messy home can seem like no big deal, but it might actually be a sneaky source of your anxiety. Research from 2019 published in the journal Building and Environment shows physical environments influence our emotions and behaviors. And a 2009 analysis of 60 spouses from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that mothers with a cluttered home had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Plus, mess causes stress, as it can leave you drained, unable to focus, and unable to relax, all of which can add up to anxiety. Our environment is important for our mental state, so keep your place organized and tidy to avoid any unnecessary tension. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that, in a clutter-free environment, participants were more focused, more productive, and less irritable.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Facts & Statistics”
- Nikki Martinez, PsyD, who practices in Chicago, Illinois
- British Journal of Psychiatry: “Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine”
- Journal of Neuroscience: “Sleep Deprivation Impairs the Human Central and Peripheral Nervous System Discrimination of Social Threat”
- Nature Neuroscience: “Chronic alcohol remodels prefrontal neurons and disrupts NMDAR-mediated fear extinction encoding”
- Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York-based neuropsychologist
- The Journal of Nutrition: “Mild Dehydration Affects Mood in Healthy Young Women”
- PLoS One: “Effects of Changes in Water Intake on Mood of High and Low Drinkers”
- The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry: “Temporal Associations of Screen Time and Anxiety Symptoms Among Adolescents”
- Anxiety UK: “ANXIETY UK STUDY FINDS TECHNOLOGY CAN INCREASE ANXIETY’
- Beth Salcedo, MD, a psychiatrist and the Medical Director of The Ross Center
- Cochrane Systematic Review: “Exercise for depression“
- Scientific Reports: “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing”
- Current Biology: “Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle’
- Issues in Mental Health Nursing: “Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine?”
- British Medical Journal: “The relation between past exposure to fine particulate air pollution and prevalent anxiety: observational cohort study”
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Sleep Disorders”
- Building and Environment: “Psychological perceptions matter: Developing the reactions to the physical work environment scale”
- Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: “No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol”
- Journal of Neuroscience: “Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex.”