When anxiety is related to an identifiable challenge—completing an important work project, resolving a conflict with a friend, or starting a conversation with a stranger—it’s often possible to address it effectively by eliminating practical obstacles to success, setting goals and making plans, and taking action to address the problem directly.
But often, the cause of anxiety isn’t clear. The anxious feeling might stand out, but it’s hard to figure out where it came from, why it persists, or how to address it. When we’re unable to identify a specific problem to tackle, we might identify anxiety itself as the issue and turn to emotion-focused coping strategies like controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, walking, or intense cardio to try to reduce, or even eliminate, the uncomfortable feeling.
Unfortunately, these tactics inconsistently reduce anxiety, and when they do, the effect tends to be weak or short-lived. Not only that but coping strategies like these are too time-consuming or impractical to rely on all the time. If you’ve ever noticed a spike in anxiety after waking up in the middle of the night or in controlled settings like the car, office, or classroom, you know firsthand the limits of these anxiety-reduction strategies.
It’s important to remember that we have options for responding to anxiety beyond the strategies we hope will reduce it. These include countering biased predictions of threat with more realistic and useful ideas, prioritizing meaningful action over avoidance, and becoming more tolerant of authentic but difficult emotions like anxiety.
To make a choice about how best to cope with anxiety, it’s helpful to pinpoint a likely cue or trigger for the emotion. But what can we do when its cause is unclear? It’s difficult enough to tolerate anxiety but struggling to make sense of it and resorting to vague explanations leads to frustration and doubt about ever addressing anxiety effectively.
For example, if you believe that “everything” makes you anxious, the future might seem pretty hopeless. How are you ever supposed to feel relaxed or get a handle on the endless challenges that come your way if “everything” makes you anxious? When you distinguish what’s truly anxiety-provoking from uneventful routines like checking email or thinking about what to have for dinner, it’s easier to attend to what’s truly significant in the moment. Being specific about your concerns is a helpful comeback if you regularly overstate threats or upcoming challenges with words like “everything.”
Low clarity in thinking presents a similar problem if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety because “nothing” seems to be causing it. Acknowledging that you may not always be immediately aware of anxiety’s causes, but that you can probably identify them with some mental detective work, boosts your chances of pinpointing your anxiety triggers, so you can then choose how to respond to them.
A good starting point for identifying anxiety triggers is to give some thought to what anxiety is. Anxiety is a future-oriented emotional response to a perceived threat. When we anticipate that something bad will happen, that it will be catastrophic, or that we won’t be able to cope, we respond to the predicted challenge with physical arousal, the urge to protect ourselves, a subjective awareness of “anxiety,” and the understanding that this collection of internal activity reflects a true threat.
To summarize, it’s helpful to remember that anxiety is a collection of internal responses to a predicted threat, so that when you initially believe that “everything” or “nothing” contributes to your anxiety, you can clarify your thinking with this very useful question: “What specifically do I think will happen?”
This question brings attention to the fact that anxiety is future-oriented. It’s also a good cue to focus on the different types of upcoming challenges you might encounter, so you can decide where to direct your attention and how to cope. Below are some questions to help you pinpoint the expected challenges:
- Is there something about the situation that presents a problem? Is the location or physical environment unfamiliar or does it present a practical problem?
- Am I concerned about my own performance or effectiveness? What specifically do I think I will or won’t do?
- Am I concerned about a social setback in which people do, say, or think something I won’t like? What specifically do I think might or will happen?
- Is the timing of the experience an issue? What is it about the time of day, duration of the event, or date that concerns me?
- Is there something about my physical reactions that concerns me? Do I think they’ll be too uncomfortable to tolerate, that they’ll persist for a long time, or that I’ll develop a medical problem?
- What do I have the urge to do or not do? What is it about my urge that concerns me? What do I think will happen if I act on the urge?
- How do I understand my emotions? Am I using certain labels, like anxious, panicked, or terrified? Am I judging my emotions to be bad, wrong, unacceptable, or intolerable?
- What’s going through my mind? Am I thinking about something highly specific, jumping from one thought to the next, or struggling with uncertainty? Is it the content or activity of my mind that concerns me?
The next time you find yourself overwhelmed because “everything” makes you anxious or “nothing” seems to explain it, see if answering these questions makes it easier for you to understand anxiety's origins, clarify your predictions, and set yourself up for favorable outcomes by choosing the best responses to show your anxiety who’s boss.