Body Sensations as a Trigger For Anxiety (Triggers Part III)

by Jennifer L. Fee, Psy.D. Health Professional

This is Part III of a series that identifies what kinds of things you can look for that might be triggering your anxiety.

In Out of the Blue to Blues Clues: Finding Your Anxiety Triggers Part I, I explained how thoughts and images could trigger anxiety.

In Part II , I outlined how feelings and memories can trigger anxiety.

This article will discuss the final category of internal triggers (triggers that occur within ourselves), Physical Sensations.

Physical Sensations

We are constantly experiencing physical sensations and sometimes we are aware of them and many times we are not. For instance, what do you feel in your body right now? Are you sitting in a chair, reclining in a hammock, or lying on the beach? If, for example, you are sitting in a chair, what does it feel like? Is it a soft, comfortable chair that feels good on your back and legs? Or is the chair too high and your feet are dangling above the floor? Perhaps you are hungry or tired but have been so absorbed in reading that you haven not noticed until now. Wherever you are at this very moment, take a minute and notice what is happening in your body.

What we feel in our bodies can lead to numerous thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You most likely do not have any significant thoughts and feelings about sitting in your chair, however, there are many other situations where the opposite is true. Jackie* (see Part I), for example, gets anxious when she is too warm. The physical sensation of being too warm is uncomfortable for many of us, however, for Jackie it was accompanied by the thoughts, "Here I go again. I don't feel good. What if I have a panic attack?" These thoughts tended to escalate into "catastrophic" thoughts such as, "If I have a panic attack here and now, I will really embarrass myself" As I discussed in a previous SharePost about the vicious cycle, catastrophic thoughts in turn increase the experience of the physical sensations and can ultimately lead to a panic attack.

Did you know that some people have experienced anxiety and even panic attacks after becoming relaxed? That may sound strange to some, but it happens. The reason is that relaxation is a physical sensation, and for some people it is an unfamiliar body feeling. Unfamiliar body sensations are scary for some people and hence can be the starting trigger for a panic attack.

A first step in identifying body sensations as the source of your anxiety triggers is to start paying more specific attention to them. You can use a Body Sensation-Feeling Diary as a start:

- Situation
- Body Sensation
- Feeling

One way to fill out the diary is by using what I call the "Three Times a Day Prescription." In other words, stop whatever you're doing three times a day, morning noon, and night and ask, "What am I feeing in my body right now?" Write down what you're doing, what you feel in your body, and any emotion that you have. If you do this for three or four days, you'll have a good baseline of bodily sensations and your emotional reaction to them. Some of the bodily sensations you record in the diary will be insignificant but others might turn out to be a valuable "clue" as to what specifically triggers your anxiety.

For example, I just answered a reader's question about what foods might trigger anxiety. I mentioned that a great number of people do not realize that drinking caffeine can trigger anxiety, or even getting too hungry could trigger a panic attack! Therefore, it's really important that you keep a simple diary for awhile as part of your hunt for "clues."

Well, that's it for the internal triggers.
In Part IV of this series I will discuss the external triggers (things that occur outside of ourselves).


Jennifer L. Fee, Psy.D.

Jennifer L. Fee, Psy.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer L. Fee, Psy.D.

Jennifer Fee is Director of Vision Quest Psychological Services. She is a psychologist licensed to practice in the State of California. She wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Anxiety Disorders.