Your heart’s racing, your face feels hot, and you can’t stop your brain from worrying. Sound familiar? Those are just some of the symptoms that come with anxiety—an emotion that can be intensely felt both mentally and physically. It’s also a common part of daily life.
Anxiety is designed to protect us from danger. Consider the “fight or flight” response. When the brain perceives stress, it sets into motion a chain of physiological events to get the body ready to confront the threat or escape it. But, for many of us, anxiety also comes up when there’s no perceived threat—sometimes during specific situations and sometimes repeatedly, without warning. The former is known as situational anxiety.
Below, we explain what situational anxiety is, how it compares to anxiety disorders, how people who experience situational anxiety can better cope, and when mental health support might be helpful.
What exactly is situational anxiety?
While the term “situational anxiety” has been used to mean a range of definitions over the past few decades, it’s most often colloquially used to mean anxiety that pops up—like the name suggests—in a specific situation. Although situational anxiety can be a part of an anxiety disorder, it may also be experienced all on its own.
Situational anxiety isn’t always a problem. It only becomes a problem if it causes issues in your relationship with yourself, with others, or in your daily life.
What does situational anxiety feel like?
Signs and symptoms of situational anxiety, as well as any instance of anxiety, include:
- Worried thoughts
- Physical changes (e.g., increased blood pressure, sweating, shaking)
What are the causes of situational anxiety?
Situations can cause anxiety when a situation is unknown, uncomfortable, or otherwise upsetting.
Some people may experience anxiety only when extenuating circumstances have arisen in regular situations. For example, intense fear around Covid-19 could make going to school, work, or spending time with friends especially anxiety-producing out of fear of infection.
Others may have situational anxiety that’s more anticipatory in nature. They may feel fear and tension about certain situations before they happen because of a possible negative outcome. This may come up in advance of going to a doctor’s appointment at which you’re afraid you might learn something bad about your health. (Anticipatory anxiety about having a panic attack or having future panic attacks is a common aspect of panic disorder.)
Triggers of situational anxiety
Shared triggers for routine situational anxiety may also be commonly experienced among young people. This is a non-exhaustive list of the many possible triggers and examples of each:
Hanging out with new friends
You’re about to meet up with new coworkers for the first time. As you show up at the restaurant, you feel your heart rate pick up and your breathing becomes more shallow. The same thing happens any time you meet new people because you’re often nervous you’ll say the wrong thing or leave a bad first impression.
Going on a first date
Nerves before a first date happen to almost anyone, but you tend to feel especially anxious about them. You often experience sweaty palms and find yourself tripping over your words—even though you’re very excited to be there.
Having your first day of class
As school starts up again every semester, shifting environments after spending time away stresses you out. You’re always filled with dread until you’re able to see what teachers you have and who’s in your classes. You can’t help but be anxious until you know you’ll have a decent semester.
Taking a test
Even when you feel like you studied enough for the test, you can feel yourself essentially freezing when you sit down to take it. Your breathing feels rapid and your palms are clamming up. The pressure of testing really gets to you.
Whenever you get up to speak in front of a group of people, whether it’s presenting at work, in class, or making a speech at an event, you start feeling your voice and breath get caught in your throat. You’re sure everyone can hear the uncertainty coming out through your stilted speech.
Flying in an airplane
You’re scared of flying and feel a lot of anxiety from wheels up to wheels down. During any flight, you close your eyes and squeeze onto your armrests. If there’s turbulence or the plane jerks even just a little bit, it’s extremely difficult not to catastrophize. You only feel safe when you’ve landed at your destination.
What is the difference between situational anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder?
Whether you’re experiencing situational anxiety or an anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety disorder depends on your anxiety symptoms.
With situational anxiety, symptoms of anxiety only come up when you’re in specific situations. Situational anxiety may or may not cause longer-lasting issues than the isolated event.
Generalized anxiety disorder in adolescence is marked by high levels of anxiety about everyday situations and events which occurs on most days, for at least six months, and interferes with your daily life.
Most people experience some degree of situational anxiety, but generalized anxiety order is relatively rare among young people.
Other more common anxiety disorders among young people include social anxiety disorder (sometimes called social phobia), separation anxiety disorder, and anxiety disorders related to a specific phobia or phobias.
How to deal with situational anxiety in the moment
Before entering into a situation you know gives you anxiety, you have the ability to make choices that will make you feel more comfortable. For example, if you experience anxiety when you’re in a social situation, you could show up early to get acquainted with the space and reduce some of the unknown. If flying makes you nervous, you can bring a book or pre-download a few podcast episodes to distract yourself in the air.
Even if you haven’t been able to prepare in advance, there are coping strategies you can call on for in-the-moment relief from anxiety. Here are a few we recommend.
Cooling down your temperature can help you decrease a racing heart rate in the midst of situational anxiety. Consider going outside if the weather is cooler than your inside temperature, splashing your face with cold water, taking a colder shower than you normally would, or rubbing your hands or face with an ice cube.
Practice paced breathing
Paced breathing can also help decrease heart rate as well as other physical symptoms of anxiety, like a flushed face and sweating. To practice paced breathing, take 1-2 minutes to breathe from your abdomen and in through your nose for four counts, breathe out of your mouth for six, and then repeat.
Relax your muscles
Progressive muscle relaxation can help you release tension and relax in your body during an anxious feeling or moment. If you’re seated, begin by becoming aware of the muscles at the top of your body and in your upper back. Tighten your muscles for five seconds and then let go. Do the same with the arms, abdominal and lower-back muscles, and then through to your pelvis, thighs, upper legs, and calves.
Do a quick meditation
Another way to drop into your body and out of the anxiety is to do a short meditation that doesn’t require anything but you in a comfortable position and your brain. While seated, perform a 3-minute body scan from the top of the head down through your toes. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, and then close your eyes. Check in with how you’re feeling in each part of your body and stay present with those sensations as you internally make your way from top to bottom.
Treating anxiety in adolescents
If anxiety of any kind is interfering with you or your teen’s life, psychotherapy and medication (when recommended) can help with managing those symptoms and gaining back some of that control.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
There’s no one-size-fits-all therapeutic approach to anxiety treatment, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common recommendation for people experiencing disruptive patterns of anxious thoughts. The therapy centers on naming and reframing the negative thought, or multiple negative thoughts, so they no longer keep us from doing what we want in life.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, in some cases, medical providers may suggest taking antidepressants (e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), anti-anxiety medication (e.g., benzodiazepines Xanax or Ativan), and sometimes beta-blockers (off-label use for the heart medication) in addition to psychotherapy to help reduce the intensity of symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety support at Charlie Health
Charlie Health is here for you or your teen whether you’re dealing with social phobia, situational anxiety, or any anxiety disorder that’s impacting daily life. Anyone who’s experiencing anxiety—and even those who aren’t—deserves to speak with a compassionate clinician about their challenges, their joys, and their goals.
At Charlie Health, our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program for teens and young adults ages 12-28 and their families combines evidence-based therapeutic modalities like CBT, thoughtfully assembled supported groups with other teens who experience similar issues, and family involvement to provide comprehensive, effective care for any young person who needs it. We accept major commercial insurance and Medicaid plans to make sure our program is as accessible as possible.
Our experts specialize in anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, phobia-related anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder—as well as clinical depression and other mental health conditions.
Get started with Charlie Health today to explore treatment options and begin the path toward a future with less anxiety and improved overall mental health.