In many ways we create our own anxiety. It might be our habits or the actions we take. It might be our perspective on everything from traveling on airplanes to how life works. The good news is that we can do something about these triggers—instead of letting them generate needless anxiety, sink our mood and rule our lives.
Below, counseling psychologist Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, shared four potential triggers and how we can reduce or navigate them healthfully.
One of the leading causes of anxiety is obsessive thinking, said Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, who works with individuals, couples and families in Chandler, Ariz. “When we repeatedly think of the same thing over and over again, we are forcing ourselves to experience and re-experience the torture of what is plaguing us.”
She likened it to having a song you despise stuck in your head. All. Day. Long.
The best way to deal with a broken record is to stop the record or play another song, Saenz-Sierzega said. This also works for thoughts. For instance, put a time limit on how much you’re going to ruminate about something—such as 10 minutes. When the time is up, commit to moving on.
Explore the other side of your concern. Instead of hyper-focusing on the thought “What if this plane I’m on crashes?” Saenz-Sierzega said, you might consider these other scenarios: “What if I get bumped to first class and get free drinks all flight?” or “What if the plane doesn’t crash and I just wasted three hours being worried for nothing when I could have watched six episodes of [fill in favorite show] instead?”
Skipping a To-Do List
“Allowing all your needed tasks to float around in your head all day creates needless anxiety,” Saenz-Sierzega said. We not only have to focus our mental effort and energy on accomplishing tasks, we also have to remember to remember them.
Writing down a to-do list of essential tasks gives you the mental space to actually start getting those tasks done, she said.
To create a helpful to-do list, jot down everything you need to do; rank order the items; write out all the steps for projects with multiple tasks; be very specific; and turn tasks into action words (e.g., instead of “find movers” try “call mom and ask her to suggest a mover’”). Also, make sure to factor in your emotional energy.
Playing a Psychic
We often pretend that we are psychics, mind readers or fortunetellers. “[W]e waste time, energy and effort in an attempt to predict the future,” Saenz-Sierzega said. You might predict the future about everything from a job interview to a final exam to a prospective date.
We mistakenly assume that all this prognosticating will help us be prepared. But it actually doesn’t help at all. Saenz-Sierzega likened it to putting a down payment on a house in Alaska “just in case,” when you’ll likely never live there.
Instead, “allow yourself to experience reality in ‘real time,’” she said. When your thoughts shift to the future, refocus yourself on the present moment.
And if you’re having worries about your performance or abilities, turn those thoughts into questions. Psychologist Tamar Chansky, Ph.D, suggests this exercise in her excellent book Freeing Yourself From Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create The Life You Want. She lists these examples:
- “I’m never going to get a job in marketing” can become “How do I best get a job in marketing?”
- “I’ll never be able to afford my own house” can become “What are the different ways I could afford my own house?”
- “I’m never going to be a good enough mother” can become “Is there something I want to be doing as a mother that I’m not doing now?”
(Get more tips in this piece.)
We try to avoid discomfort at all costs, which ironically creates anxiety, Saenz-Sierzega said. “[Y]ou’re essentially trying to create a superpower: only feeling satisfied and comfortable at all times.”
But we’re bound to experience discomfort in all areas of our lives. Discomfort might stem from a conflict with your co-worker; from having to have a hard talk with your kids; from ending a bad relationship; from having someone end a relationship with you; from setting boundaries with others; from not getting an invite to a party, she said.
How can you learn to tolerate discomfort?
Redefine your perspective. According to Saenz-Sierzega, realize that discomfort is a “natural part of life,” it often leads to growth and it’s unpleasant—but not “bad” or “intolerable.”
Don’t conflate discomfort with pain. Pain and discomfort are two very different things. For instance, when you go to the dentist, you’ll frequently hear, “You won’t feel pain, but you may experience discomfort,” she said.
“When we convince ourselves that we need to be comfortable or that we cannot withstand being uncomfortable, we’ve just created a secondary disturbance: having a problem with having problems.”
We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment when we believe that we can only be “OK,” if we don’t have any issues, she said. That’s why it’s vital to let go of the idea that “we need to feel ‘good’ all the time.” It’s simply not realistic. And it doesn’t build our resilience.
Even though we can create our anxiety, this doesn’t mean you need to berate yourself when you do. Rather, it helps to pause and explore how you might be producing your own anxious responses, so you can find healthy ways to reduce them.
Check out our earlier piece on three things that trigger or perpetuate anxiety.
Old record player photo available from Shutterstock