I recently wrote an article about five mistakes people with depression make. That post was well-received, so I decided to write a version about anxiety.
Here are well-intentioned ways people respond to or think about their anxiety, that actually cause unnecessary suffering or get in the way of doing more fulfilling/enjoyable things.
If you've made these mistakes, there's no need to be self-critical. These are common, understandable, and easily fixable patterns.
1. Spending too much time and effort attempting to lower your anxiety.
Less is more when it comes to anxiety management. I've been anxiety-prone since I was a child, and even with all the strategies I know for lowering anxiety, my usual M.O. for dealing the anxiety is to do something productive while I wait for my anxious thoughts and physical overarousal to pass on their own.
Think of it like when you take a pot of boiling liquid off a stove. When you remove the heat, it keeps boiling awhile and then gradually cools. Many of the ways people respond to anxiety backfire and are like keeping the pot on the stove, or even inadvertently turning the temperature up.
If I don't feel like doing something productive when I'm feeling anxious, I'll do a quiet, enjoyable activity (like watch Netflix or listen to an audiobook).*
If I need to reduce anxiety in situations like leading up to an interview, I just do slow breathing. Calming physiological arousal naturally calms thoughts.
It's a good idea to spend a few months learning and practicing anxiety strategies so that you have some favorites at your disposal when needed, and feel comfortable using them. However, most of the time you won't need to do anything to spot-treat your anxiety, beyond getting out of your own way.
*If you're more of an extrovert than I am, you might prefer a more social strategy.
2. Ruminating about who is at fault in response to social anxiety.
When social anxiety is triggered, people often go into rumination about who is at fault. For example, if someone is abrupt or insensitive with you and you feel upset, is it your fault for being "too sensitive" or the other person's fault for being thoughtless?
You might find yourself having "shoulda, coulda" thoughts about what you could've done differently to avoid the situation or how you could've reacted differently, if only you weren't in an anxiety tailspin.
Try thinking about it like this: rumination is like turning the temperature up on your pot of liquid.
The trap is that people who ruminate often don't recognize that they're ruminating. Smart people who are accustomed to using their thinking skills to solve problems are especially vulnerable to this trap. They see their rumination as problem-solving (a positive and a strength) when it's not the right tool in every situation.
Simply engaging your brain in something else helps disrupt rumination, even if you don't believe that will work. My colleague Dr. Guy Winch mentions some strategies (like doing a Sudoku) here, and points out that studies have shown that even two minutes of positive distraction can help disrupt rumination.
3. Thinking of anxiety only in negative terms.
Given that I've been anxiety prone since I was a kid, if I thought about anxiety only in negative terms, I wouldn't feel very good about myself as a person.
There are many, many ways that anxiety helps me. My anxious tendencies cause me to be appropriately cautious, always have backup plans, and double check details. Feelings of self-doubt help me stay open to diverse ideas and propel me to work hard. Caring about how I'm perceived by others is, overall, a good thing.
When you see an anxious little kid tentatively approaching a steep slide or a flight of steps, that's smart. They're still exploring—but cautiously.
Increasingly, there is a large body of research and writing about how so-called negative emotions lead to improved thinking and acting in various situations. Some of my favorite resources are the book "The Upside of Your Darkside" and the article "Why Psychologists Say Anxiety Is the ‘Shadow’ of Intelligence."
A predisposition to anxiety is not a character flaw. You don't need to eliminate anxiety, you just need to learn to keep your anxiety system well-calibrated.
4. Overlooking or dismissing the role of basic self-care in anxiety and psychological health.
While I use minimal "spot" treatments for spikes of anxiety, I do some basic self-care that increases my resiliency and calibrates my anxiety system so that it's not too overreactive (a slightly overreactive anxiety system is a good thing because it's better to see a danger that isn't there than to miss a real danger).
I'm talking really basic: I go for a walk most days, I get plenty of micronutrients, I have trusting relationships, and I have lots of experiences of pleasure (fun, enjoyment) and mastery (mostly learning new things in the domains of technology, psychology, and travel, which are my main personal interests).
The beauty of these behaviors is that don't just help with anxiety. They have multiple benefits including improved physical health and thinking, and they contribute to a sense of living an authentic, enjoyable, and meaningful life.
When you do forms of self-care that have multiple benefits, rather than focusing directly on anxiety, it helps you avoid a sense that you're constantly trying to control your anxiety or that you're in a tug of war with your own nature.
Photo by Morgan Sessions via Unsplash.