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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‚Ķ 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 ‚Äď 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‚Ķ

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 ‚ÄúI’m¬†not OK‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äď 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.