I recently wrote a well-received post about five mistakes that people with depression make, so I decided to write a version about anxiety. Here are some well-intentioned ways that people respond to or think about their anxiety, which actually cause unnecessary suffering, or get in the way of doing more fulfilling and 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 on 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 with it is to do something productive while I wait for anxious thoughts and physical over-arousal 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 before it gradually cools. Many of the ways people respond to anxiety that backfire 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 anxious, I’ll do a quiet, enjoyable activity, like watching Netflix or listening to an audiobook. (If you’re more of an extrovertthan I am, you might prefer a more social strategy.) If I need to reduce anxiety in stressful situations, like before an interview, I just do slow breathing; calming physiological arousal naturally calms your 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 you 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.
2. Ruminating about who is at fault.
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 such a situation, or how you would’ve reacted differently if only you weren’t in an anxiety tailspin.
Try thinking about it like this instead: Rumination is like turning the temperature up on a pot of water. The trap is that people who ruminate often don’t recognize that they’re ruminating — and smart people 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 should help to disrupt rumination, even if you don’t believe that will work. My colleague, Guy Winch, mentions some strategies (like doing a Sudoku) here(link is external) and points out that studies have shown how 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. And there are many, many ways that anxiety helps me: My anxious tendencies cause me to be appropriately cautious, to always have backup plans, and to 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 child tentatively approach a steep slide or a flight of steps, that’s smart: They’re still exploring — but cautiously.
Others have argued(link is external), and I agree, that being a combination of hopeful and anxious is a very desirable cognitive style. Increasingly, there is a large body of research 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(link is external).”
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.
While I use minimal “spot” treatments for spikes of anxiety, I also do some basic self-care that increases my resiliency and calibrates my anxiety system so that it’s not toooverreactive. (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(link is external); I have trusting relationships; and I have lots of experiences of pleasure (fun) and mastery (learning new things in the domains of my main personal interests of technology, psychology, and travel).
The beauty of these behaviors is that they 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.