Fight or Flight: Recognizing Triggers and Coping with Anxiety

Sweaty palms, tight chest—when you start to feel stressed, here’s what you can do about it


female lion roaring

Being chased by a lion is stressful. Getting stuck in traffic and showing up late for a job interview may lead to a panic attack. These are universal stressors, but beyond the big stuff, not everyone feels anxiety over the same situations or things.

“Triggers are different for everyone, depending on your own experience and your own trauma. What might trigger you won’t necessarily trigger another person,” says Integrative Psychotherapist Erin Brewer, MA.

What causes stress and how you react also depends on the mental state you’re in, she adds. “If we’re exhausted, sick, or not eating well, we’ll be more susceptible to those triggers.”

Often with stress, people experience the emotional reaction first. When that anger, fear, or sadness rushes to the surface, Brewer recommends taking a moment to acknowledge it and then taking a step back. Use the emotion as a barometer, and ask yourself:

  • What’s my body doing--am I feeling something in my gut? In my chest?

  • What’s my mind saying?

  • When did this feeling start?

To help fight anxiety and help your body stay calm when you’re triggered, try the following tips.

  1. Breathe deeply and slowly. Be mindful about the breaths you’re taking, and try different techniques. You can keep them even (1-2-3 in, 1-2-3 hold, 1-2-3 out), use Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing ratio, or find something that works well for you.

  2. Meditate. Listen in on what your mind is saying, and focus on changing your relationship to those thoughts so that they don’t have to be so potent. Meditation and making mindful choices can help bring that clarity.

  3. Reach out to your support system. When you’re feeling triggered, it’s good to be around people who love you, care for you, and can validate you where you are. Don’t be afraid to call on a friend, family member, or therapist with whom you can discuss your feelings or just sit quietly.

Keep in mind that it’s easier to learn these skills before you’re not in a stressful situation, Brewer says. Take time each day to pause and practice.

For more information on integrative approaches to stress management, please call the Raby Institute at (312) 276-1212.



Integrative medicine is about seeing every person fully – recognizing that good healthcare attends to and nurtures body, mind, and spirit.