When Anxiety Strikes Without a Cause

Thursday, February 12 2015 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Experiencing anxiety without a definite cause of it can be awful. Rather than trying to find the cause of your anxiety, though, shift your focus. Here's how.

Sometimes, we experience anxiety because of an anxiety trigger. People can be diagnosed with different types of anxiety disorders, each with specific symptoms and causes. Additionally, people can experience situational anxiety where something in particular causes anxiety symptoms to flare. A student might experience test anxiety severe enough to negatively impact performance or a parent's anxiety might become heightened and nearly debilitating when he/she thinks about the various harm that could come to the child. The anxiety that is triggered by something can be painful, limiting, and downright awful, especially when one can't avoid anxiety triggers. Equally painful, limiting, and downright awful is when anxiety strikes without a cause whatsoever.

Experiencing Anxiety Without a Cause

A common complaint among people who live with anxiety is that it is all-encompassing and even paralyzing. It impacts thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It limits what people feel able to do in their lives. The worry and fear, as well as the physical symptoms of anxiety, can nearly shut us down.

When anxiety strikes without a cause, it's confusing and maddening. Sometimes things are made worse because people around us want to know "why." Why do we have panic attacks? Why can't we breathe correctly? Why are we avoiding the world?

When we're anxious but can't explain why, either to ourselves or to others, we feel even worse. Sometimes, as we wrack our brains for a reason for our anxiety, our anxiety increases. When this happens, it's not uncommon to shut down even further, nearly becoming paralyzed by anxiety and our struggle to explain it.

Let Go of Needing to Know the Cause of Anxiety

Experiencing anxiety without knowing why can be awful. Rather than trying to find a reason, though, shift your focus. Here's how.

A reason anxiety increases when we struggle to answer the elusive question "why" is because in searching for that answer, we become caught up in anxiety. We expend a whole lot of time and negative energy fighting.

Even more important, when we are consumed in trying to find an anxiety cause we are anxious, we become hyper-focused on anxiety. The concepts that are receiving the brunt of our attention are anxiety, worry, fear, panic, and the like.

When we hold on to the need to know why we are holding onto anxiety itself because that is what we are thinking about. Chances are, those thoughts are not peaceful. To reduce the grip of this vague (but strong) anxiety, it's important to let go of the need to know the anxiety cause. We don't have to enjoy anxiety, but we can be at peace with the fact that there's no apparent cause for it.

To Find Peace, Shift Your Attention and Intention

Ruminating about anxiety and anxiety's cause means that's where our thoughts are. The more we think about anxiety and what it's doing to us and how paralyzing it is, the stronger it grows. Like anything (a child, a garden, whatever), what we attend to is what flourishes. In constantly wondering "why" we are giving our precious attention to anxiety and its strengths.

What if, instead, we were to ignore anxiety's strengths and pay attention to our character strengths? You're sitting at work and are suddenly struck by a feeling of intense anxiety. The more you focus on how it feels and the more you focus on wondering why it happened, the stronger and longer it will be. Instead, think of the fact that you are stronger than your anxiety.

Pay attention to what's been positive in your day thus far. Remember what you're great at and do something within one of your strengths. Perhaps you pride yourself on your kindness; you could take a quick break from what you're doing and do a small random act of kindness for someone nearby.

Will you still feel anxious? Probably, at least at first, anyway. But because you've shifted your attention to your strengths rather than anxiety's strengths and because you're doing something intentional to shift your thoughts and actions, you'll find that anxiety lessens its grip just a bit.

When we stop focusing on our anxiety's cause, we free up our minds to do other things. We really are stronger than anxiety, and when we play to our strengths rather than to anxiety's, soon it won't matter if anxiety strikes without cause because it will begin to shrink. Then, we won't have to wonder "why" at all.

You can also connect with Tanya J. Peterson on her website, Google+, Facebook,Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

View all posts by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC.

When Anxiety Strikes Without a Cause

Todd
says:
February, 12 2015 at 4:58 am

I've seen many people suffering with such kind of situation. I'll surely recommend this to those needy. It's such a great post and delivers that much needed message required. Thanks for sharing.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 13 2015 at 4:52 pm

Hello Todd,
Thank you very much for reading and for commenting. I'm very glad you found this helpful and worthy of passing along to others! I appreciate your letting me know that. Like you, I've seen many people dealing with this ambiguous, yet very real, anxiety so wanted to address it.

Beth
says:
February, 21 2015 at 6:35 pm

As a 9/11 survivor with PTSD, I suffer daily with debilitating anxiety that leaves me frozen and unable to use my extremities.

<b>I have just learned that panic attacks and anxiety attacks are different. <b>Panic attacks are neurological, whereas anxiety attacks are mental. I suffer from the latter.

Thank you for the article.

JLB
says:
February, 21 2015 at 7:16 pm

Thank you for posting this. I was recently diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia. And i have a child with Asperger's syndrome. I've spent the last 15 years trying to figure out WHY he has such symptoms that cause autism, so naturally, when i was diagnosed with the above, i also turned my attention to the "whys". It's a vicious circle and it's been hard to stop. This makes a lot of sense and I'm prayerful that letting go WILL lessen my symptoms.

RachelJL
says:
February, 26 2015 at 9:31 pm

I have to say that I don't agree, unless I'm misunderstanding. I think there are times when this may be true, but in my case and where I am in my healing right now, I need to figure out why I'm anxious. I've suffered from anxiety for years without knowing that I was really anxious, or how it was affecting me. When I was finally diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD, therapy was very helpful, but it still didn't rid me of all my symptoms. It's been a long road. Now, if I focused on the things that bothered me? That would be a problem. But so often I had no idea why I was anxious. It was only this past year when I was taught that trauma can mix up your thoughts, like in a messy closet, and as you take things out and put them in their place, the anxiety lessens. This has been the case for me. I have been over-thinking a lot of things, but not recognizing my feelings.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 27 2015 at 2:59 pm

Hello Rachel,
Anxiety comes in many forms, and there are specific anxiety disorders. Each is very unique, including PTSD (which was officially classified as an anxiety disorder until the release of the DSM-5 with its reclassifications). Every individual is also very unique. In some cases, there is absolutely an underlying cause to anxiety, especially with PTSD. While for some people, exploring the root can lead to further trauma, for many people, identifying and processing what happened leads to healing. Some people experience anxiety or an anxiety disorder but there isn't an obvious cause (that doesn't mean that there isn't a cause at all, but it's in the background). In some cases, people become stuck trying to figure out what is causing the anxiety, and that actually increases the anxiety. In these cases, it's helpful to let go of trying to find a cause because that will free up more energy to find solutions. I'm very glad you shared your thoughts. I wish you continued success as you work through anxiety and PTSD.

Carlee
says:
December, 4 2017 at 10:49 am

Thank you for this post. I suffer from sudden onsets of anxiety and you hit the nail on the head. When i start experiencing anxiety I automatically go to what is causing it although there is not really reason for it. My thinking becomes negative and I project my anxiety onto things that I shouldn't like my relationship (thinking my partner is going to leave me), work (going to get fired) etc. In an attempt to justify my feelings when all i am doing is feeding it and making it worse. This article really brought me back down (not completely) but it has given me a different persepective. I don't need to label it, feed or justify it; its okay not to be okay and i am stronger than my anxiety. Thank you.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 9 2018 at 4:08 pm

Hi Carlee,
I just now discovered your comment (It's March!). Although it's a bit late, I just wanted to thank you for your comment. I'm so glad that this article was helpful. And I hope this perspective is still working well. If not, it's okay to try it again. And then again. :)

gladys secuya
says:
December, 11 2017 at 12:21 am

thank you so much for this article. Recently, i experienced anxiety attack. IT'S NOT EASY HAVING ANXIETY ATTACKS, it can affect your personal and social interaction. Indeed, my life was stuck as if I'm in the middle of the sea trying to figure out everything, why like this or like that. I hope and always praying that this would end 'coz it's killing me slowly from the inside.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 9 2018 at 4:13 pm

Hi Gladys,
I just discovered your comment, and even though it's been three months, I'd like to reply. I'm happy that you liked the article. You are so right in that anxiety attacks aren't easy. Keep reading to learn things you can do to bring them to an end, and keep trying new things. While there are no quick fixes, you can overcome anxiety attacks.

Bryan Lambert
says:
March, 9 2018 at 11:00 am

Hello, I have anxiety and really don’t know why. I recently quit drinking and smoking and I’m thinking that has put a lot of stress on my body. I am taking Sertraline right now but have only been on it for a week so I need to give it Time. When I get anxiety I feel confused and kinda spaced out. Is this normal? I used to also worry a lot about my health and constantly got anxiety about that. These feelings all happened close to when I quit drinking and smoking. So people can just develop an anxiety disorder for no reason? Thanks for your time.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 9 2018 at 4:25 pm

Hi Bryan,
Anxiety can absolutely start when someone stops drinking, smoking, or both. Quitting these things isn't easy, and the brain goes through changes during the process. It is highly possible that your anxiety stems from neurochemical activity in the brain (which is probably why your doctor prescribed Sertraline -- and you're right in that it takes time to feel the effects). Many times when people quit drinking and smoking, they experience changes in their environment and activity, too. People who typically drank in a bar, at parties, etc. might stop going to those places or continue to go but not drink. These changes can cause anxiety, too.
Stopping drinking and smoking (both at once is even more intense) can cause people to develop anxiety. This anxiety is often temporary and will subside once your brain and lifestyle habits adjust to the change.

If, after several months, you are still experiencing significant anxiety, you might consider going back to your doctor and/or seeing a therapist. You'll get strategies for overcoming your anxiety.

There is almost always a reason anxiety disorders develop, but it's not always obvious. In some cases, people never pinpoint a cause. It could be brain activity or something in their past or present life that they don't realize is making them anxious. But you don't have to know a reason. Just know that it's there, recognize what it's doing to you, and discover ways to overcome it.

Anna Meltser
says:
April, 25 2018 at 8:52 am

Hi, thank you for the inspiring message that was given to all of us. I hope that you can answer something that has been wanted to be answered. I've been bullied since 5th to 9th grade and the bully that I had affected my way of life and socializing. By the time I got to 9th grade, I realized I was too afraid to talk to anyone and that everyone judge me if I did. I could only talk to my best friends who i've known for a long time. Now that i'm a senior, I can see that i'm truly improving in my thoughts and being able to speak to people I would never even think of speaking to. I still do struggle with talking to some people, but I have improved over the years. How can I help myself even more with social anxiety? And how can I stop being so fearful and demanding in a relationship when my seperation anxiety comes into play?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 27 2018 at 1:00 pm

Hi Anna,
I appreciate your feedback about my message. Thank you.

I say this with sincerity: congratulations for coming as far as you have in overcoming social anxiety. It's possible to overcome social (and other) anxiety in high school, but it is difficult given the nature of high school. But add prolonged bullying to the mix, and it becomes even harder because of the way a bully affects the person he/she is bullying. You clearly have many strengths and a great deal of grit (a combination of resilience and passion).

You have been able to come far, and you will make even more progress. Because of where you are and what you have been able to do, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) comes to my mind. It involves learning to accept certain things, separate yourself from them, practicing mindfulness, being able to observe yourself, determining your values/what's important to you, and taking committed action to work toward those values. That's just a quick overview. What it does is, even while you are still doing things to reduce your anxiety, let you move forward and live the life you want to live despite some social anxiety hanging around. It doesn't mean giving up or giving in. It means moving forward regardless.

Here's a link to an article wrote here on the HealthyPlace Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog. If you're interested, it gives you a better overview of how you can use it. If you decide you don't like ACT, keep searching for what works for you. You're not done overcoming. :)

Jack
says:
April, 25 2018 at 4:13 pm

Slowly over the past few weeks I’ve been very anxious in class, for seemingly no reason. When the teacher calls on me for nearly anything I’ll get very nervous with the typical physical symptoms; hot, red face and clammy palms. It occurs for no reason when I talk to other classmates and even my own friends. I wanted to know how one could possibly stop this behavior, because it almost cripples my social interactions.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 27 2018 at 12:43 pm

Hi Jack,
Your symptoms are very much a part of social anxiety (although I wouldn't do you harm by stating that you or do not have a certain type of anxiety. Anxiety is too complex to truly pinpoint in this setting.) That disclaimer aside, your symptoms do fit social anxiety. It has a way of perpetuating itself and even making itself worse because people want to avoid letting others see the physical symptoms. So they withdraw more and more and become increasingly isolated. It's very good that you recognize what you're experiencing and want to stop it. Sometimes people just want to isolate until things just get better; sadly, things don't get better that way.

Many things can help (so don't give up hope). Two things in particular are proven useful: exposure and mindfulness. With exposure, you put yourself in social situations and learn to stick with it despite discomfort. Your brain learns that there's no real threat and that you can do well. You want to do it gradually to avoid increasing anxiety and even panic. Maybe enlist the help of a trusted friend to practice having conversations. When you can do it without anxiety symptoms, up the ante. Enlist another friend. Work your way to more. Practice going in after school to talk to a teacher. Gradually increase your interactions. This is a common practice in therapy for fears and phobias (social anxiety disorder is also called social phobia). It might be beneficial for you to do this with the support of therapist.
The other practice is mindfulness. Get into the habit of being mindful in all that you do. With mindfulness, you pay attention to what you're doing and where you are in the present moment by focusing on all of your senses. It pulls you out of your anxious thoughts. Given what you're experiencing, you don't want to focus on your body because you'll hone in on your physical symptoms. Instead, pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Mindfulness calms mind and body. Both of these tools are things you can begin using now, unless you'd rather to exposure with a therapist. It can wait until you find one. You can overcome this -- your social interactions won't stay crippled.

Anne
says:
April, 27 2018 at 11:29 am

I see myself in every comment. My anxiety manifests itself in a wave of feeling ill, sudden nausea and intense nervousness. Then all those feelings pass quickly, leaving me tired and concerned when these symptoms will strike again. I’ve been tested for everything in order to find a cause. All results are deemed “normal”. And this is how I’ve come to believe I belong by in this blog. One thing is certain ... uncontrolled anxiety takes the joy from your day! Thank you for listening and for being here for me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 27 2018 at 12:28 pm

Hi Anne,
Welcome to HealthPlace and Anxiety-Schmanxiety! I'm very glad you have found a fit -- but I'm also sorry that you feel a fit. :) Anxiety can be rough, but as you've seen already here, you're not alone. Feel free to respond to others' comments as you want to (no obligation). You just might find tools and ideas to help overcome anxiety.

In reply to by tpeterson

Anne
says:
April, 29 2018 at 8:05 pm

Thank you so much, Tanya for your prompt response. I will certainly interact with others on this blog. It is so comforting to know I’m not alone with this challenge! I do want to pass on a bit of success in controlling my anxiety, which I employed today. When I felt a wave of illness coming on, I took a Benedryl, which brings on a calming effect within 15 minutes or so. Then I tuned into uTube and watched Bocelli and Sheeran sing “Perfect” together. That video produces an immediate “aaaaah” feeling. Try it everybody!

Crystalin
says:
May, 1 2018 at 12:12 am

Hey thanks for this article! Back In December of 2017 i was hanging with my boyfriend and his cousin and we started smoking (keep in mind i don’t really smoke) the last time i had smoked was back in 2015 when i was panicking and had paranoia every since then i didn’t wanna smoke again. But when this day came i smoked and i got extremely high, i think i took in more than i could take and next thing i know i started to feel anxious, heart racing fast !! And i just got paranoid .. a week later (December 31) i started shaking really bad , couldn’t sleep or nothing so i thought i was just scared and i was neverous wreck because i was dwelling on the day i smoke and how scared and high i was , so i tried to go to work thinking the feeling i was feeling was going to stop but it didn’t so i left work early and my mom took me to the hospital and they gave me lorazepam and i was taking those for two weeks but i started researching about them and seen how some people was having seizures off them and that made my anxiety worst! I couldn’t sleep in my room or nothing i just wanted to be under my parents i feel depersonalization.. and still do kinda. My anxiety was soooo bad i stopped taking the pills and everything ! But reading your article was a big help !! some of my anxiety have subsided , &amp; i realize the only time i feel it is when i start thinking about it &amp; it’s so hard to not think about it.. i don’t wanna go on a trip with my friends this summer because i feel like im going to have a anxiety attack. and for some reason i still have heart palpitations.. but then again i only feel those when I’m thinking about anxiety &amp; thinking about my heart pounding .. ugh this is so stressful i just wish i could rewind time.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 1 2018 at 7:03 pm

Hi Crystalin,
I'm so glad you discovered some helpful information! You have a great deal of insight into yourself and your anxiety. This is great because it can help you overcome anxiety, but at first it can make anxiety worse. When you know a lot about your anxiety, it becomes easy to overthink it. At least at first. That will get better. Have you considered talking with a therapist? Mental health therapy can help a lot. Just a thought!

In reply to by tpeterson

Crystalin
says:
May, 4 2018 at 2:41 am

yes .. when i go to the doctor i will ask for one, but thank you

Simone
says:
May, 29 2018 at 7:02 pm

Hi Tanya
I have been experiencing random anxiety/ panic attacks everyday, the sad thing is there is no specific reason. I have been worried about my health for awhile however I did all the necessary test and they came back almost perfect.

I also, get headaches, faintly, and feelings of losing control I've been to a psychiatrist but meds have great side effects.

How do i cope?

June, 1 2018 at 11:03 am

Hi simone,
It's frustrating when there isn't an obvious reason for anxiety and panic! When there's a reason, at least there's a starting place, something tangible to work on. That said, you can do something about anxiety and panic without knowing why they're happening.

Two approaches that are especially useful for this are acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness. (Mindfulness is a component of ACT, and it also stands on its own). With these, the emphasis is on grounding yourself in the present moment (which helps you minimize the symptoms in the moment as well as lasting negative effects). The other emphasis is on defining what you want and taking action to move toward those goals. Rather than stopping anxiety and panic, you're creating the quality life you want. In doing this, anxiety and panic will wither. It's not a quick fix, but it is an effective one.

These articles briefly explain ACT and mindfulness. Also, I've added a link to resources for finding a therapist in case you'd like to work with someone, whether you like the sounds of ACT and mindfulness or wold like to take a different approach. There are many approaches to mental health!

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Stop Avoiding Anxiety (note: It doesn't sound to me like you're avoiding anxiety, but there's good into about ACT in the article) https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/07/stop-avo…

Using Mindfulness for Anxiety: Here's How: https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/anxiety/using-mindfulness-for-an…

Types of Mental Health Counselors: Finding a Good One: https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/types-o…

Even without a cause to target, you can overcome this anxiety and panic. Think about how free you'll be without them!

Cait
says:
June, 25 2018 at 12:16 pm

This article was so helpful for me! I’m always trying to figure out why and you’re so right, all that does is make the anxiety worse! I’m feeling so empowered after reading this so thank you!!

Janet
says:
July, 26 2018 at 4:49 pm

I’m 72 years old and have dealt with anxiety and panic attacks for quite a few years. I have done well until recently when I get a stuck feeling in the middle of my chest then a pain that lasts seconds. I get them out of the blue..when I don’t feel anxious. Is this generalized anxiety? Also after one of these, I get really sleepy?
Thx for your article and your reply.

July, 29 2018 at 8:02 pm

Hi Janet,
While the pain you describe can definitely be associated with generalized anxiety, it could be part of many different physical and mental health conditions. Seeing your doctor could be a good idea and a logical place to start. He or she can help rule out any physical problem and can help you explore anxiety. Doctors can often recommend therapists, too. Getting to the bottom of your pain will help you know exactly what to do to treat it.

Leave a reply

Follow Us

Most Popular

Comments

Mental Health Newsletter