Anxiety is a normal and useful emotion. No, really: the experience of anxiety was evolutionarily advantageous, as it helped to ensure our survival as a species.
So, for example, if a buffalo was charging at our ancestors, it was their feeling of anxiety that urged them to run. Feeling anxiety enables us to attune to threats and danger in our environment. Today, it more likely motivates us to meet important deadlines and accomplish tasks. However, anxiety is not helpful when it starts to negatively impact our day-to-day functioning. While it is impossible to get rid of anxiety, we can stop it from having a negative impact on our lives. Here are three things we may do that could actually be making our anxiety worse.
We have thousands of thoughts per day. But not everything we think is necessarily true. Our brains try to make sense of the world by coming up with stories in the form of a series of thoughts. Rather than try to stop our anxious thoughts, we can work to recognize that they don’t have power. When we simply notice our anxious thoughts without ruminating on the past, we can then bring ourselves back to the present moment. The more we question our assumptions, the easier it can become to take actions that align with your values (no matter what your anxious mind may be telling you).
It makes sense that we might try to avoid situations, things, and people that trigger anxiety. However, this actually causes more anxiety in the long term. When we avoid something that triggers your anxiety, it feels calmer in the moment. This reinforces the avoidant behavior because you experience a pleasant emotion as a result. For instance, let’s say that you have anxiety about going to parties. You might worry that you will feel uncomfortable and that people will judge you. If a co-worker invites you to a party, you might feel that the better option is to make up an excuse not to go. However, repeatedly facing the things that you fear can decrease your anxiety over time. If you are really struggling with facing the sources of your anxiety, it might be helpful to consider meeting with a licensed therapist. Ben Rutt, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in anxiety explains, “Eventually, avoiding anxiety-provoking situations can take over your life and make your life very small. People with anxiety might stop going to public places, stop taking on more responsibilities at work, or stop spending time with family. When I work with a client with high anxiety, I help them face their fears in a gradual way so that they can relearn what they are capable of.”
Laura Reagan, a clinical licensed certified social worker, says, “Beating yourself up for feeling anxious is another way of trying to avoid this uncomfortable feeling. It is not helpful because when your inner critic comes out and berates you for your anxiety you feel worse about yourself, leading to more anxiety.” For instance, you might be tempted tell yourself something like, “It’s so stupid that I’m feeling anxious about this.” Instead, try to treat yourself the same way that you would treat a loved one that was feeling anxious. Psychotherapist Sarah Zalewski MS, LPC, NCC, explains that beating yourself up for feeling anxious is normal, but “By focusing on the anxiety, and your inability to deal with it, you are creating even more anxiety—anxiety about having anxiety.” It is critical that you work to be kind to yourself when you are in the midst of anxiety. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can in this moment. Ultimately, you deserve to extend the same kindness to yourself that you would give to someone you love. Through learning how to distance yourself from anxious thoughts, facing your fears, and practicing self-compassion, you can change your relationship with anxiety and stop it from controlling your life.