Situational anxiety is anxiety that occurs in unfamiliar or new situations. It is not a distinct condition, but a way of describing how anxiety affects someone.
Many people experience situational anxiety at some point in their lives. When it is mild, situational anxiety does not require treatment.
However, there are ways of addressing situational anxiety so that it has less impact on a person’s life. This might be beneficial if it is something that affects them frequently. For example, if a person often has to travel away from home and finds this stressful, they may want to address their situational anxiety.
In this article, learn more about situational anxiety, including what it is, the signs and symptoms, examples, the treatment options, and ways of coping.
Situational anxiety happens in response to new or unfamiliar situations. For example, a person might feel situational anxiety if their employer asks them to take on a new responsibility, or if they travel overseas for the first time.
This type of anxiety does not necessarily indicate that a person has an anxiety disorder. To an extent, many people experience situational anxiety at some point in their life.
Situational anxiety is not a distinct medical condition. Instead, it is a way of describing the typical anxiety that many people experience when they are out of their “comfort zone.”
As a result, people typically only experience situational anxiety occasionally — usually when they do something new or challenging.
In contrast, anxiety disorders have a substantial effect on a person’s daily life. Below are some comparisons.
Situational anxiety vs. generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
People with GAD feel anxious about a range of things, even if the event about which they are worried is not currently happening or may never happen.
This is different than situational anxiety, which is usually more specific and applies to the present moment. People with situational anxiety only feel anxious about things that are going to happen or are currently happening.
Situational anxiety vs. social anxiety
On the surface, situational anxiety and social anxiety can seem very similar. They do have some overlap, as people with social anxiety can also fear events that commonly cause situational anxiety.
The reason for this is that social anxiety develops due to a general fear of negative judgment from others. A person may consistently worry that others will dislike them, even if there are no consequences if this is the case.
In contrast, people experiencing situational anxiety might fear negative judgment only when there are consequences.
For example, the consequences of a job interviewer disliking someone could be that they do not get the career they want. Being aware of this can cause a person to feel additional pressure to impress. This is also known as performance anxiety.
The symptoms of situational anxiety are the same as those of other forms of anxiety. The only difference is that they occur in specific situations.
A person with anxiety may feel:
They may also have physical symptoms, such as:
- a rapid heartbeat
- fast, shallow breathing
- shaky hands
- tense muscles
Below are some common examples of situational anxiety:
- Public speaking: A fear of public speaking is very common, even among people who experience little anxiety in other facets of life. People may feel anxious about giving presentations, making speeches, or leading meetings.
- Job interviews or auditions: These events have high stakes. Due to this, many people experience situational anxiety ahead of interviews and auditions, even if they are typically confident.
- Meeting new people: Going on a first date, talking with an important contact, or meeting someone a person admires can all cause situational anxiety.
- Traveling away from home: Leaving home for somewhere unfamiliar can cause situational anxiety, even if a person is looking forward to the trip.
- Trying new things: People often feel some situational anxiety the first time they try things, such as riding a bike, swimming, or going on an airplane.
Some of these examples, such as a fear of public speaking, overlap with social anxiety.
Situational anxiety is not a distinct medical condition that psychologists diagnose. However, it can still have a significant effect on a person’s life, and a person can get help dealing with it.
For example, if a person wants a career that features a lot of foreign travel, they may wish to seek support in reducing their anxiety around this specific activity. A doctor, therapist, or counselor can offer advice on the best approaches.
It is also important to note that situational anxiety and anxiety disorders can be hard to tell apart. A doctor or licensed therapist will be able to help a person understand which type they have.
If a person needs or wants to reduce their situational anxiety, they have various options.
Graded exposure therapy
This type of therapy involves gradual exposure to the source of the fear. A person starts with a very small and achievable goal, such as taking a day trip to a nearby town. They then work toward more challenging goals, such as going on a weekend vacation and then perhaps an overseas trip.
A person only moves on to the next step when they feel comfortable with the previous one. This allows them to get familiar with the new situation and feel confident that they can handle it.
Most medications that doctors prescribe for anxiety require a person to take them regularly. For example, people need to take serotonin reuptake inhibitors every day consistently, otherwise they do not work.
However, there are some anti-anxiety medications that people can take in one-off doses. This includes drugs such as benzodiazepines, which are a type of sedative.
A doctor may prescribe a limited amount of these medications to people who need help staying calm in specific situations, such as when they travel via plane.
However, the body becomes dependent on benzodiazepines and other tranquilizers quickly, and
People who experience situational anxiety regularly because of their job or lifestyle should not use anti-anxiety medications as a long-term solution.
Coping strategies can help people handle anxiety when it arises. For situational anxiety, it may help to make a pre-performance routine. The aim of this is to reduce the uncertainty surrounding a new or unfamiliar situation.
A pre-performance routine could include:
- Gathering information: A person may wish to research the place they are going, find out the people who are attending, or look at pictures to familiarize themselves with locations or names.
- Preparing: To reduce stress on the day, people may feel better if they minimize the uncertainty by preparing in advance. This might include choosing what they will wear, packing bags, preparing a meal, or setting an alarm.
- Rehearsing: People may feel more confident the more they rehearse a speech, performance, or travel route. For example, if they have a job interview and are nervous about finding their way, they could practice the journey the weekend before.
- Self-care: It is easy to neglect self-care during times of stress, but it can help a person relax. They can try to make time for a calming activity before a stressful event. If possible, they should plan a relaxing evening the night before and get enough sleep. It is best to avoid things that can exacerbate anxiety, such as caffeine.
Situational anxiety is anxiety that occurs in new or unfamiliar situations. Often, it occurs when a person has to leave their “comfort zone,” such as when they are traveling far from home.
Many people experience situational anxiety from time to time. It does not necessarily need treatment, but if a person is frequently in situations that give them this type of anxiety, they may wish to speak with a therapist.