Surprising Triggers for Anxiety Attacks

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

This is the Part V of V Share Posts pertaining to categories of "triggers" that can "get the ball rolling" or accelerate your anxiety.
If you're reading this post first, you may want to go back and read Understanding the Vicious Cycle of Panic," first to appreciate the idea that while anxiety may appear to come "out of the blue," actually there is always an underlying cause or "trigger."
In subsequent posts I separated triggers into two categories, internal, or stimuli that start inside of us (such as thoughts, feelings, memories), and external,
which things that start outside of ourselves. In my last post, I discussed Overstimulation (too much going on) and Understimulation (boredom) as potential anxiety triggers.
Today I will describe how fluorescent lights and things experienced by our senses (sights, sounds, smells) can trigger anxiety.

Fluorescent Lights

Most of us have incandescent light bulbs in our homes, which are extremely inefficient. They are inefficient because they actually radiate more heat than light. In contrast, a fluorescent light is four to six more efficient than an ordinary light bulb There are several reasons for their efficiency, for example, fluorescent light is generated through electrical activity, whereas incandescent light is generated through heat activity. Also, fluorescent light can convert ultraviolet light to visible light--ordinary light bulbs cannot. (for more information about how different lights work, see the How Stuff Works website).

Given the fact that fluorescent lights are far more efficient than traditional light bulbs, why do most of us not have them in our homes? For some it may be a matter of personal preference, but for others we believe that fluorescent lights are actually an anxiety trigger.

When I tell clients that that fluorescent lights can be an anxiety trigger some give me an odd look, but the clients who nod emphatically in agreement are generally teachers. That's because they've already discovered that one quick way to calm down a classroom of antsy students is to turn off the overhead fluorescent lights!

Traditional light bulbs appear "warmer," more like natural sunlight (there's more red light waves and less blue than fluorescent light). This characteristic is probably why most of us prefer incandescent lighting. Some people claim that the cycle of electricity in fluorescent lighting can be seen (as a "flickering" of the 60 cycle electricity), which would certainly be bothersome. More seriously, the flickering of fluorescent lights as been cited as the cause of seizures in people with a specific type of epilepsy known as "reflex epilepsy."

Take notice how you feel when in a room with fluorescent lighting. What do you feel? Some people are fine with it and actually like it. Many others, myself included, just don't like it and prefer incandescent lighting. Still others feel anxiety symptoms in response to the lights. If you feel anxiety symptoms, be sure to rule out other possible triggers in the environment before concluding that fluorescent lights truly bother you.

Things Experienced by the Senses (Sights, Sounds, Smells)

These are among the most subtle triggers one can experience. I call things experienced by the senses "subtle" because these are almost always linked to internal triggers such thoughts, feelings, memories, and images. Heather shared with me her story about having a panic attack triggered by smell. When she was a young child, Heather went to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania every year with her father and rode the roller coasters. Unfortunately, Heather did not particularly enjoy the experience, but she knew that her Dad did. Years later while visiting the Park with a friend, she got on that same roller coaster without too much thought about it. As it neared the top of the first hill, Heather got a good strong whiff of chocolate and immediately had a panic attack! She thinks that perhaps the smell of chocolate triggered all the thoughts and feelings she had about riding the roller coaster as a child. Evidently they were not good thoughts and feelings!

Conclusion to this Series

Hopefully by now you have a good grasp of the possible triggers for your anxiety. Start to identify triggers by asking yourself each time your anxiety level rises, "What just happened before I started feeling this way?" Go through the categories identified in these five posts and see if you can find something that fits. As soon as you can identify specific triggers you can take more control over your anxiety and keep it from escalating into a panic attack.

Summary of Posts:

Out of the Blue to Blue's Clues: Finding Clues for Your Anxiety Triggers (Part I)

Out of the Blue to Blue's Clues: Finding Clues for Your Anxiety Triggers (Part II)

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

Two Critical External Triggers of Anxiety: Overstimulation and Understimulation (Triggers Part IV)

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.