Knowing the Triggers of My Anxiety


It’s officially summer!

It’s been hot here in New York, which means beach days and barbecues and bike rides and… anxiety.

Wait, what?

Um, yeah. You see, I don’t love the heat (or humidity), and this discomfort has historically been one of my triggers for a potential panic attack. Not to worry, I have not recently had a panic attack or even come close, but not because I’ve stayed inside in the air conditioning and avoided all  scary situations that might trigger me – because, um, that would suck and make for a very lame summer. Instead, I have learned what my anxiety triggers are and do my best to take care of myself so I can enjoy the sun and fun that summer in NYC has to offer.

Whether you’ve experienced panic attacks like me or just get a little jittery from time to time, it’s useful to know what might bring it on, and take extra good care of yourself when faced with these feelings. So here are mine.

Heat: Feeling like I’m overheating can make me woozy. I’ve learned if I don’t find a way to cool down at least once a day (e.g. taking a cold shower or sleeping in the AC at night), it can kinda build up. But I don’t avoid situations where I might get hot; I simply plan for them: I wear comfortable and cooling clothes, bring plenty of water, and maybe even a hat. I’ll take breaks in the shade and make sure to cover my bases with the rest of my triggers…

Hunger: After experiencing debilitating panic attacks years ago, I realized the feeling of hunger is akin to the feeling of anxiety in my belly. When I feel like I’m starving, I can begin to feel faint and weak and talk myself right into that “I’m not OK” mindset, basically creating my own panic attack. I decided back then I’d always rather be full than worry about eating too much. I bring snacks with me if I know I’ll be out for a while, and I never push myself too hard. Skipping meals doesn’t do anyone any favors; you need to eat, you’re a human.

Crap food: OK, so maybe I should be a little more precise – eating crap food doesn’t make me feel like a million bucks, either. Although at times of discomfort I often want to turn to foods like pizza and ice cream, I know it’s not what my body needs. Science tells us the foods we eat can affect our moods, so I focus on the good stuff. I avoid processed and instead eat whole foods, making sure to get protein to feel strong and energized and full.

Caffeine: At the time my panic peaked, I was crushing a four-shot Americano every day. Yup, that’s a lot of caffeine. No wonder I was feeling jittery and my heart was racing, only to take an energetic nosedive later. I now avoid the stuff almost completely and feel balanced throughout the day.

Sugar: I know I recently went on a rant about sugar, but I really can’t say it enough: it is the worst for me. It hides in everything from cereals to breads to pasta sauce, and it causes a similar spike and crash like coffee. It messes with my insulin levels and leaves me feeling tired and bummed out. This is not the pick-me-up I need when I’m feeling a little off to begin with.

Alcohol: I know, I know. But alcohol is a depressant, and while it might feel pretty nice at first, that aftermath can leave me feeling pretty low. My biggest and scariest panic attack ever came in the middle of a terrible hangover; in fact, for a while I thought it was just the weirdest hangover I’d ever had. A few drinks are fine; I just try to avoid the hangover.

Sleep: I always, always, always try to get enough sleep. All systems are basically down for the count when I haven’t been getting rest. I notice I feel hungrier when I’m tired (see note about hunger above), and tend to want to eat crap (again, see above), and just generally feel weak and not-so-confident.

It’s no coincidence that the ways to reduce anxiety are also the ways to just take good care of yourself in general. And while anxiety can go much deeper than these triggers, I find as long as I’m feeling healthy and strong, I can pretty much tell myself I’m OK if any of those old familiar feelings start to crop up.

Just this week I faced a potentially triggering situation, where I had only gotten one hour of sleep, barely ate, and took the subway at 3:30 a.m. into Times Square to do yoga with a bunch of strangers. I caught myself checking in: Am I OK? I’m tired and hungry and I’ll be in the middle of the city and far from home and nobody there knows me and will know how to take care of me if anything happens! I realized I could sit there and talk myself right into a panic attack, imagining the scene where I become stuck to my yoga mat in the middle of Times Square and totally ruin this awesome experience for myself — or I could imagine the opposite: a strong, albeit tired, version of myself, rockin out some yoga in one of the most iconic places on earth. I chose the latter, and as soon as I stopped focusing on it, those jittery feelings subsided.

What makes you feel shaky or uncomfortable? How can you avoid those feelings, without avoiding life? Find this post helpful or know someone who would? I’d love it if you’d share it.

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