Every one of us experiences anxiety. And we can experience anxiety about anything in our lives. Anxiety expert Marni Goldberg’s clients struggle with everything from worrying about the future to feeling like they’re not good enough to being overwhelmed by daily demands.
Many of psychotherapist Tracy Tucker’s clients struggle with a fear of the unknown. Much of the anxiety couples therapist Christine Holding, LMFT, sees in her office has to do with abandonment, rejection and failure.
Maybe you can relate to experiencing the above fears. Or maybe your anxiety is of a different flavor.
Whatever your worries, you may be unwittingly approaching your anxiety in ways that actually increase it. Many of us do. Below are five unhelpful approaches and what can help instead.
1. Trying to distract yourself.
“Some people believe they can manage their anxiety by trying to keep themselves overly busy or distracted,” said Tucker, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Clinical Care Consultants in Arlington Heights, Ill. They might cook, clean, read, use the computer and work to avoid their anxious thoughts, she said. This may be intentional or even an unconscious process.
While distracting ourselves might provide temporary relief, she said, the anxiety still remains. It lingers or even inflates until we address or process it healthfully. Healthy strategies might include reframing negative thoughts, practicing relaxation techniques and working with a therapist.
2. Attacking your support system.
Sometimes, instead of turning to our support system – which can be calming – we do the opposite: We criticize or condemn them. Holding, LMFT, a certified emotionally focused couples therapist and owner of Sunlight Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah, shared this example:
A wife suddenly feels anxious in a crowd. She starts criticizing her husband for abandoning her when she needs him. Feeling like a failure, he withdraws from her. This leaves her feeling even more abandoned and anxious than before.
“Had the wife responded to her anxiety by reaching out to her husband and asking for support and comfort, he may have responded by turning toward her.” He could’ve helped to calm her anxiety, Holding said.
Similarly, many people seclude themselves altogether, said Goldberg, LMFT, LPCC, a psychotherapist in La Jolla, Calif. They might isolate themselves because they’re feeling strange or nervous, she said. However, again, being around people who care about you is a valuable source of support.
3. Ignoring your anxiety.
“There is a widely held belief that anxiety is only real if you acknowledge its existence,” Holding said. However, this is a potentially damaging perspective, because it can lead to self-medicating and other unhealthy behaviors, she said.
For instance, a religious leader referred a woman to Holding, who’d moved back home to take care of her elderly parents. Around the same time, she started feeling exhausted and frequently getting sick. She started taking supplements in hopes they’d boost her health. Even though they didn’t seem to work, she kept buying more. Every month her pharmacy bill exceeded hundreds of dollars.
She was referred to therapy when she asked her church for financial assistance. While working with Holding, the client revealed that she was sexually molested in her childhood home and never told anyone.
According to Holding, “She told herself it was in the past and silly to worry about it now that she was a grown woman. She dismissed her symptoms of anxiety as irrational and instead turned to self-medicating.” When they started focusing on healing her past and her anxiety, the client’s health improved (and she saved a lot of money).
4. Glossing over why you’re anxious.
When we’re anxious, it’s easy to become consumed by our body’s fight or flight response. Instead of considering what’s causing our anxiety, we immediately flee or avoid the anxiety-provoking situation. However, evaluating your thought process is important, Goldberg said.
“Often when we take a look at the thoughts surrounding anxiety, it turns out that we are exaggerating a situation in our minds, or possibly reacting to stimulus from our past that does not currently apply.”
Goldberg shared this example: Any time a person sees a bicycle, their heart races, their palms sweat and they start shaking. They think about the situation, and realize that they aren’t in any danger. Their body is reacting to a bad bicycle accident they had as a child. Once they have this realization, they can take several deep breaths, remind themselves that everything is OK and calm down, she said.
Goldberg suggested paying attention to your thoughts and physical sensations so you can recognize when you’re in an anxious state. For instance, you might feel butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your chest, she said.
Uncovering the root of your anxiety can help you do something to alleviate the situation, she said. She suggested considering these questions:
- “What am I worried about right now?”
- “What have I been thinking about that makes me nervous or scared?”
- “Am I trying to avoid something?”
- “Am I feeling like I’m in danger?”
“The more that you get used to reading the physical signs from your body and connecting them to your thought process, the easier it will be to identify the triggers and figure out a solution, or deal with the fears head-on.”
5. Getting caught up in what-ifs or shoulds.
When we’re anxious, our minds naturally go off the rails. We start thinking all kinds of thoughts that only fuel our anxiety. What if something is wrong with me? What if I’m not good enough? What if I screw this up? I should know better. I should do better. I shouldn’t be nervous about something so stupid. I should be stronger, braver, different.
The good news is that we can quiet this cycle, or at least find ways not to feed it. The key is to refocus on the here and now.
Goldberg suggested these practices: Focus on the feeling of your breath, as you inhale and exhale. Spend a few moments using all your senses. “Feel the seat under your bottom, and the floor under your feet. Inhale through the nose, and notice any scents present. Look around and observe what you’re seeing around you. Listen for sounds present where you are. Notice any tastes you’re experiencing in your mouth.”
Anxiety feels uncomfortable. Depending on its severity, it can even feel dangerous at times. So it’s understandable why we’d want to ignore it and distract ourselves. It’s understandable why we’d unwittingly make mistakes about how to approach it. Even though avoidance feels best in the short term, in the long run, it’s highly unhelpful.
The key is to process anxiety using healthy strategies. And the good news is that there are many strategies to choose from, including working with a therapist, exploring and reframing negative thoughts, practicing mindfulness techniques and participating in physical activities.