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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Maybe you’ve heard the term from your therapy provider or among friends in discussions about mental health. Maybe you saw something on the internet and decided to look a little deeper into it. Maybe you’ve never heard of it at all, and you’re here by fluke chance (hi!). We’re talking about situational anxiety.
When talking about anxiety disorders, many people focus on the ones listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This includes disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder.
But situational anxiety isn’t listed in the DSM-5. Does that mean it’s not real? Or that it isn’t common? On the contrary, actually.
Just because you don’t have one of the aforementioned types of anxiety disorders doesn’t mean you don’t ever feel anxious.
It is perfectly normal to feel situational anxiety. This type of anxiety is defined as a subjective fearful feeling connected to an immediate situation. Along with fear, anxiety can make you feel dread or uneasiness.
You may feel situational anxiety before the first day of school, while watching a horror movie or before you have to give a work presentation. Interestingly, this type of anxiety can actually give you a bit of energy and help you focus on what you need to do.
While it is true that there is no such thing as situational anxiety disorder, certain anxiety disorders do have tendencies to emerge in specific situations. So, it would be fair to say that situational anxiety is present in these disorders.
One such disorder is social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia). People with this disorder feel situational anxiety in relation to social situations. This could be general — like having to socialize at a party — or specific to things like public speaking.
Another mental health condition that includes situational anxiety are phobias.
A phobia is classified as an intense fear of a specific item or situation. People with phobias know the fear is unreasonable but still can’t stop it. Common phobias include fear of flying or spiders. Some people might also get phone anxiety or social media anxiety, or anxiety with driving.
Depending on the phobia someone has, they may notice certain situations aggravate it.
Signs and symptoms of situational anxiety are the same as almost any type of anxiety — they just pop up after a specific situation.
Some of the most common psychological symptoms of anxiety include feeling restless and stressed, as well as having thoughts that are hard to control or that interfere with your daily life.
There are also physical symptoms that include sweating, a rapid heart rate, unexplained aches and pains, shortness of breath, muscle tension and dizziness.
If your situational anxiety is caused by social anxiety disorder, you may also notice that you blush or sweat when around others. You may also avoid eye contact, feel self-conscious or feel like your mind goes blank around others.
If your situational anxiety is in conjunction with a specific phobia, you’ll likely find yourself doing everything you can to avoid putting yourself in a situation with whatever your phobia is.
So, how do you know if you’re experiencing situational anxiety?
Pay attention to when your anxiety pops up. Is it connected to specific situations?
For example, maybe you feel anxiety coming on before a first date or when you have to break bad news to a family member.
If you notice your anxiety comes on in connection to specific events or happenings, it’s a good way to identify situational anxiety.
If you notice that your anxiety is situational but specifically related to social interactions or a fear of something, it may still be situational anxiety, but you may be able to identify it as being related to social anxiety or a phobia.
On the flip side, if you feel anxiety but can’t pinpoint a situation that’s causing it, there’s a good chance you aren’t dealing with situational anxiety.
If you’re struggling to control your anxiety more often than not over a six-month span, you could actually be dealing with another somewhat common anxiety disorder called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
If you think your anxiety has gone beyond situational and ventured into disorder territory, the best thing you can do is contact a mental health professional.
Because situational anxiety isn’t constant, most people don’t need a long-term treatment plan for it. Instead, it’s helpful to have some anxiety-busting techniques up your sleeve.
The following things can help you stop anxiety in the moment:
Take deep breaths: When anxiety is getting the best of you, slowly inhale and exhale and repeat until the situation feels manageable.
Count to 10: Similar to taking deep breaths, slowly counting to ten can help you get out of your head and slow down.
Change what you’re doing: Remove yourself from the situation that’s giving you anxiety and try something else that brings you a sense of calm. Maybe listening to music helps or doing some yoga reduces feelings of stress for you. Whatever it is, taking yourself away from what’s inducing your anxiety can help.
Call someone you trust: Sometimes, the best way to make it through an event that’s causing stress is to call someone you trust to talk about it. This could be a close friend or even a family member.
These are all great ways to lower stress and get you out of our anxious head. However, if your situational anxiety is a part of a phobia or social anxiety disorder, you may need to consider more long-term treatment options.
If you have a specific phobia (think: a fear of dogs or flying) that’s causing situational anxiety, a mental health provider may suggest therapy. Specifically, they may recommend something like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
With CBT, you work with a trained healthcare professional to identify behaviors that aggravate your phobia and come up with ways to change those things.
In addition to CBT, exposure therapy could help. In this type of therapy, patients are safely and gradually exposed to whatever causes their anxiety with the goal of helping them get a handle on it.
As you get your phobia under control, you should notice that your situational anxiety also starts to dissipate.
Is social phobia at the root of your situational anxiety? Like with phobias, CBT can be used to treat social anxiety disorder.
Anti-anxiety medication is also an option. Medications that may be prescribed to treat the symptoms of anxiety include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like venlafaxine, benzodiazepines and beta-blockers.
By treating your social phobia, you may notice that your situational anxiety gets better.
Technically speaking, there’s no such thing as situational anxiety disorder. In fact, situational anxiety isn’t even in the DSM-5, which is the manual used to diagnose mental illnesses.
But that doesn’t make it any less real. Situational anxiety pops up in connection to — you guessed it — specific situations.
You may feel anxious on your wedding day or before a job interview. Both of these things are good examples of situational anxiety.
It’s totally normal to feel this type of anxiety from time to time. If you feel it more frequently, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder — like a phobia, social anxiety disorder or something else.
You can mitigate situational anxiety by doing things like taking deep breaths or talking to a pal. If a phobia or social anxiety disorder is causing your situational anxiety, you may want to consider medication or therapy.
If you’re dealing with intense anxiety caused by certain situations or want to discuss your anxiety levels with someone, consider scheduling an online therapy session with a mental health professional.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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