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When Anxiety Strikes Without a Cause

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 websiteGoogle+Facebook,TwitterLinkedin and Pinterest.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. 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.

12 thoughts on “When Anxiety Strikes Without a Cause”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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. 🙂

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

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

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

    Thank you for the article.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

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