Situations That Can Trigger Anxiety

How to Identify and Manage Anxiety Triggers

If you live with social anxiety disorder (SAD), it is likely that a variety of different situations trigger feelings of anxiety. A trigger can be internal or external, including smells, sights, sounds, and emotions. For people with social anxiety disorder, anxiety is often triggered by specific social situations, such as speaking in public or even meeting new people at a party.

Anxious woman sitting on the floor
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Understanding Anxiety Triggers

Anxiety disorders like SAD are believed to be caused by a variety of biological and environmental factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and stressful life experiences or trauma. Anxiety triggers, on the other hand, are people, places, or things that cause an anxiety response.

Anxiety triggers are things that your brain has adapted or learned to perceive as dangerous and, as a result, cause acute symptoms of anxiety such as muscle tension, gastrointestinal upset, and shortness of breath. Not only is the experience of anxiety symptoms disruptive and unpleasant, but it can also lead to changes in behavior. For example, if something makes you anxious, you're more likely to try to avoid it in order to avoid the related feelings of anxiety. For people with SAD, this may mean avoiding social situations, opportunities at work, or even everyday tasks like going to the grocery store.

The first step in managing your anxiety triggers is to identify them so you can learn ways to cope with them.

Common Anxiety Triggers

While any social or performance situation has the potential to elicit social fears, there are some common triggers among people with social anxiety. You may have one or multiple triggers, which is why learning to identify your personal triggers can help you avoid or better cope with your social anxiety disorder.

Consider keeping a journal or downloading an anxiety app to help track the social situations that trigger anxiety for you.


Performances may include athletic competitions, musical performances, or public speaking. People with SAD who fear these types of situations often find that they have trouble performing up to their ability because of their anxiety. Fears about public speaking can also get in the way of career advancement.

Parties and Meeting New People

Nothing triggers social anxiety like a room full of strangers. Meeting people for the first time or going to a party where you don't know anyone may be challenging if you have SAD.

Making Small Talk

Although small talk comes easily for some, those with SAD may find this type of conversation challenging. Small talk can cause anxiety about saying the wrong thing or sounding stupid. If the stranger or acquaintance that you are looking to start a conversation with is an authority figure, like a teacher, professor, or employer, it may add to the anxiety.


Dating can be stressful for anyone, but if have SAD, it can be downright overwhelming. If you're single or looking for love, all aspects of dating from making phone calls to going on first dates and having sex can trigger symptoms of anxiety.

Writing and Reading

If you have SAD you may fear writing in front of others. This worry generally stems from the fear that others will see your hands shake as you write. In addition to a fear of writing, some people with SAD fear reading aloud in front of others.

Stating Your Opinion

Do you avoid stating your opinion? Do you go along with what others say even if you don't agree? People with SAD are often afraid to voice their opinions for fear that others will be critical.

Eating in Front of Others

Some people with SAD have a fear of eating in front of others, which may be triggered by a wide variety of situations, foods, and dining companions. They may be afraid of spilling a drink or eating in front of figures of authority or afraid that others will see their hands trembling while they eat.

Using Public Restrooms

Paruresis, also known as urophobia, shy kidney, shy bladder, or bashful bladder syndrome (BBS), is the fear of using public restrooms without medical cause. It can be debilitating for some people with SAD, causing difficulty with travel, social obligations, and professional commitments.

Getting Help

A variety of situations can trigger feelings of social anxiety. If fear of these situations interferes with your functioning on a daily basis and you have not sought help, it is important to meet with a mental health professional.

Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and social skills training, and medication have been shown to be effective in the treatment of SAD.

Common medications used to treat social anxiety include:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): Paxil CR (paroxetine), Luvox CR (fluvoxamine), Zoloft (sertraline), Lexapro (escitalopram), Celexa (citalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs): Effexor XR (venlafaxine), Cymbalta (duloxetine), Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs): Nardil (phenelzine), Parnate (tranylcypromine), Marplan (isocarboxazid)
  • Beta Blockers: Inderal (propranolol), Tenormin (atenolol)
  • Benzodiazepines: Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam)

Coping With Anxiety Triggers

If you have mild to moderate social anxiety, several self-help strategies, including relaxation strategies (visualization, deep breathing, and progressive muscle) as well as self-talk (challenging negative thoughts) can make daily living more manageable.

Many people with social anxiety disorder lack assertiveness and can also benefit from practicing to communicate their needs in a calm and relaxing way. Learning to be more assertive will make it easier to ask for any accommodations at work or school to help ease your anxiety; for example, asking for a podium or pitcher of water if you need to give a speech or presentation.

Preparation is also a crucial part of coping with anxiety triggers. For instance, you can set a time limit for yourself before you go to a party or come up with a script to prepare for any small talk during a first date.

Most importantly, you can help yourself by being patient with yourself while you work toward identifying your personal triggers and exploring ways to prevent them from disrupting your daily life.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."