What Is Situational Anxiety?

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Situational anxiety is a form of anxiety that occurs in response to a specific situation. This type of anxiety is common and can be normal—after all, everyone has situations that tend to make them feel anxious, such as a job interview, the first day of school, or giving a presentation in front of a large group.

Situational anxiety is not recognized as a distinct condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the clinical manual that doctors utilize to diagnose mental health conditions.

However, if symptoms meet certain criteria, including being distressing and interfering with daily living, they may meet the criteria for a type of anxiety disorder known as a specific phobia. Specific phobias involve an irrational and intense fear of a specific situation or object.

Symptoms

There are a number of signs and symptoms of situational anxiety. In response to certain situations, you might experience:

  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Lightheadedness
  • Increased heart rate and rapid breathing
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness or trembling
  • Sweating

People may also experience feelings of worry, trouble sleeping, and panic. In some cases, people may even experience a panic attack in response to a specific situation. A panic attack is an episode of intense anxiety or fear. In order to prevent these symptoms, people may sometimes begin avoiding situations that they know will trigger an anxiety response.

It is important to distinguish between situational anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Where GAD involves an often continuous state of generalized worry, situational anxiety arises in response to a specific situation.

Identifying Situational Anxiety

If you suspect you are experiencing situational anxiety, talk to your doctor. They will be able to assess your symptoms and determine if they are related to situational anxiety or if they are a sign of another mental health condition such as a phobia or other type of anxiety disorder.

Your doctor will ask you questions about the nature, duration, and severity of your anxiety symptoms. You may also be given a physical exam and have blood drawn in order to run lab tests that can help rule out certain medical conditions that might be causing or contributing to your anxiety symptoms. 

You may also be asked to fill out a questionnaire that can help screen for conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Causes

There are a number of different factors that can contribute to situational anxiety. It tends to be triggered by new or changing situations. Because people are unsure of what to expect or how they should respond, feelings of anxiety can emerge. 

It may also occur in situations where people have had a negative or uncomfortable experience in the past. For example, if you had a bad experience once while giving a talk in front of a group, you may be more likely to experience anxiety the next time you face a similar situation.

Being more susceptible to anxiety in general may make it more likely that you will experience situational anxiety. Factors that may play a role in causing anxiety disorders include genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental influences.

Triggers

Situational anxiety can be linked to a number of different settings, experiences, or situations. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • First day of school
  • Job interviews
  • First day at work
  • Meeting a person on a first date
  • Traveling to a new place
  • Being away from home
  • Speaking in public
  • Meeting people at a party
  • Being tasked with leading a group
  • Making small talk with people you don’t know
  • Social situations

Major life changes can also trigger feelings of situational anxiety—a wedding day, the birth of a child, or moving out to go to college, for example.

Novelty and unfamiliarity are common themes for many of the situations that trigger situational anxiety. It’s normal to feel anxious in the face of situations where you aren’t sure what to expect or what might happen. In many cases, situational anxiety begins to lessen once the situations become more familiar. 

Treatment

Situational anxiety can often be managed using self-help strategies, but in instances where your anxiety becomes very distressing or interferes with your daily life, you may need professional treatment. Psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two are options for treating problems with anxiety. 

Your doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), or Ativan (lorazepam) to help you manage symptoms of anxiety when they arise. They may also recommend a psychotherapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure therapy that can help alleviate your situational anxiety.

Coping

Situational anxiety can be challenging and upsetting, but it is also something that you can often manage using a number of different coping strategies. Some ideas that may help:

Prepare

Situational anxiety often arises when you feel unprepared to deal with an unfamiliar situation. Making sure that you have adequately prepared yourself to manage whatever might happen, whether you’re giving a speech or starting a new job, can help reduce some of your feelings of anxiety. 

Expose Yourself to Your Fears

Exposure therapy is an approach that is commonly used to cope with phobias and anxiety. The idea is to expose yourself to what you fear in order to familiarize yourself with it and discover that it really poses little danger. You might start slow (maybe just thinking about what makes you anxious) and then gradually work your way up to actually facing your fears (such as putting yourself in the situation that makes you anxious).

Challenge Negative Thoughts

Engaging in catastrophic “what if” type of thinking where you imagine all of the worst possible outcomes is one common pattern of negative thinking that can contribute to situational anxiety. When you find yourself thinking this way, challenge your thoughts with more realistic, positive ones. 

Use Relaxation Techniques

Learn and practice some relaxation strategies that you can then use when you find yourself experiencing situational anxiety. Deep breathing and visualization are two useful approaches that you can utilize to quickly calm yourself. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is another helpful tactic that involves progressively tightening and then relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body.

Regularly practicing these coping strategies can help you gradually decrease your situational anxiety over time. The more often you face your fears—while also preparing yourself, challenging your negative thoughts, and using relaxation techniques—the less anxiety you will be likely to experience.

If you or a loved one are struggling with situational anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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