Most people do not want to experience anxiety, yet I see people regularly doing things in an effort to reduce their anxiety that are actually making it worse. Here are three of the most common culprits, and what we can do instead.Reassurance seeking, or asking others to tell you that you look okay or that whatever you’re worried about is not going to happen is a common response to anxiety; however, it actually makes anxiety worse, in the long run. Because seeking reassurance temporarily reduces anxiety, the next time you worry about something, you will feel like you need reassurance in order to cope with it. This seemingly innocent behavior often becomes a pattern that is very hard to break, and, for some people, makes their anxiety significantly worse.
Reassurance seeking is a common compulsion done by those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but seeking reassurance can also be a major factor in anxiety disorders and in those with a level of anxiety that isn’t clinical significant.Instead of asking for reassurance, it is much healthier to sit with the anxiety and not get reassured from anyone, even yourself. This may be very difficult at first, but it will get easier over time. By sitting with the anxiety you will find that it passes on its own, and you will eventually become less dependent on reassurance.
Another common way to make anxiety worse is by fighting or resisting it. It is natural to dislike anxiety and want to get rid of it. However, when we try so hard to get rid of an unpleasant emotion, it often sticks around longer. Think about when you’re trying to fall asleep. Often the harder you try to to sleep, the more difficult it becomes. Instead if you just accept that you are not asleep yet but that you will be eventually, you will actually fall asleep more quickly. The same is true with anxiety. By allowing it to be as it is, the tension is released and the anxiety is able to pass naturally. Panic Disorder is basically a product of the effort to control or stop the symptoms of a panic attack, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, and hyperventilating. The more you try to make a panic attack stop, the worse it becomes because your brain believes that the threat is greater than it actually is. If you are able to recognize that the symptoms are actually just a false alarm and not truly harmful, they will pass much more quickly.
Finally, our natural tendency to avoid situations or people who make us anxious is another way that we make anxiety worse. It seems like a good idea to avoid things that make us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, avoidance often makes anxiety stronger by reinforcing the idea in our minds that there is something really scary about this situation or person. If the situation or person really is dangerous, avoiding them is probably the best course of action; but, when the situation is not dangerous, like public speaking or going on a date, avoidance is problematic in two ways.
- When you avoid something that you want to be able to do, you get in your own way of reaching your goals.
- Secondly, avoidance makes it less likely that you will face that fear or a similar one in the future because avoidance intensifies the anxiety and makes the distorted thoughts feel truer. For instance, if you tell yourself that you cannot go to a job interview because you will never be able to handle that much anxiety and will never get a job, and then you avoid job interviews because of this fear, you will never learn that you will probably be able to handle it and get a job. So the distorted beliefs that you cannot handle anxiety and that you cannot get a job feel even more true.
To overcome a fear, it must be consistently faced gradually in order to reduce your anxiety. So with the job interview example, you could start writing out answers to common interview questions, then practice reading the answers aloud, then practice answering them with a close friend or family member, and finally have a less familiar person perform a mock interview. Every time you master one of these smaller steps you will be teaching yourself that you can handle the anxiety and that you are capable of going on an interview.
This confidence will then help you take the final step toward facing this fear by going on a real job interview. Whether you do well and get the job or not, you will have learned that you can handle the associated anxiety, which you will never learn if you continue to avoid. Over time, and with repeated practice of facing fears, your anxiety will decrease and you will not be held captive by your fear any longer.