Knowing your triggers is half the battle
The sneaky thing about anxiety is that we often struggle to get clarity on what is really triggering our physiological reactions. We experience a churning stomach, clammy hands, and at times hyperventilate into a panic attack. If we are able to get clarity on what is triggering those reactions, then we have a starting point for addressing those underlying fears. Anxiety can hold you back from living a full life, impacting relationships, career moves, and down-time - so here are five ways to start pinpointing your triggers and getting back to full-functioning:
Map the context: Think back to the last three times when you experienced anxiety symptoms, and for each one begin to map out the context - What happened leading up to the symptoms? Who was around when you started experiencing sensations? What changed in the situation? When did the feelings start? Where were you? What were you doing? Other key information? - What similarities are there between the three events? Differences? What helpful information do they give you about how you experience anxiety?
Find the thought process: When you experience anxiety symptoms, often there is a worry or concern that has triggered them - a train of thought that produces the fear and anxiety. What is it that goes through your head right before and often during the anxiety sensations? Fear of failing, dying, of pain, of responsibility or even overwhelming confusion can be at the root of the sensations. Try and reduce the idea to a simple statement that accurately represents what is going through your mind - "I will fail", "I can't do it", "I don't know", "They'll think I'm a looser", "I'll make a fool of myself" - Once you've got that statement, begin to question it's truth and meaning, you don't have to believe everything you think - "Failure means I was brave enough to take a risk, and I want to be brave." "I can learn, I can be a beginner." "I know how to find out." "The ones who mind don't matter, and the ones who matter don't mind."
Flip what makes you calm: To find out more about your anxiety symptoms think about the times when you have felt most at peace. Like the first exercise on this list, think about the context for that peace - what facilitated your feelings of ease? If you can gather information about what makes you calm, it gives insight into what the opposite might be, that is what disrupts the calm and brings on the anxious feelings.
Use your imagination: While for most people this exercise is safe, individuals with severe anxiety and/or PTSD sufferers should consult with a professional before trying this, as flashbacks and intrusive memories can be re-traumatising. Our imagination is a powerful tool for stimulating physiological reactions. This means that we can use it to begin to understand what is going on in certain situations without having to live them out. When you are struggling to find the details for the last three exercises, call on your imagination to recreate the situation, in detail. Letting yourself feel the emotions of the event, knowing that you are safe, can provide important information about the nature of the trigger.
Test yourself: If none of the exercises above are revealing patterns or clues as to your triggers, begin to test yourself. Start in a safe place and start trying things that slowly increase your feelings of anxiety - the aim is to find your tolerance or comfort zone, so that you can spend some time there desensitising and getting used to the sensations. Start with simple things and slowly increase the difficulty - walk to the letter box, walk down a crowded mall, talk to a shop owner, talk to your boss about taking time off, etc - each time you try something remember to map out the sensations you experience and the thoughts that go through your head.
All of these exercises will provide clues to your triggers and helpful information about the way you experience anxiety. Be kind to yourself, and remember that small steps forward are still steps forward.