6 Ways to Make Anxiety Worse
1.) NOT TAKING RISKS
Healthy risks, of course: taking the risk that someone may not like you, that you may look silly, that you might make a mistake, that you might get sick after shaking someone's hand. Craving certainty and wanting only "good" outcomes, limits your self confidence, and raises your anxiety and self-doubt about whether you could cope if a situation did not go as well as you'd like. Note: the more threatening you perceive a situation, and the less confidence you have in your ability to cope, the greater your anxiety will be. Taking small risks allows you see how threatening a situation actually is, and allows for your problem-solving and coping abilities to grow.
2.) MISINTERPRETING PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
Racing heart, shortness of breath, upset stomach, sweaty palms, tingling in your fingers, dizziness - these are all physical symptoms of anxiety, and the manifestation of the fight or flight response. These feelings can be triggered in a variety of situations, including during moments of stress, and when you are having anxious thoughts. When you start labeling these symptoms as "bad," or "dangerous," or create a catastrophic misinterpretation ("I'm about to lose control," "I'm going to faint," "I think I'm having a heart attack,"), your mind and body will get scared; and guess what happens when your body gets scared? That fight or flight response revs up even more, and the physical symptoms become more intense. Your body is preparing itself to run from danger, It's trying to protect you in a moment when you don't need protection - it's a false alarm! When these feelings intensify, and you begin to further misinterpret them as signs of danger, the fight or flight response kicks up even further, and before you know it, you're having a full-blown panic attack. Remember, the physical symptoms of anxiety are annoying, uncomfortable, and pretty inconvenient at times; but the good news? They are harmless!
3.) USING SAFETY BEHAVIORS
This may include carrying around a water bottle, anxiety medication, or a "lucky" item, for the purpose of keeping yourself calm. While these items may very well help you get through uncomfortable situations, your mind is inadvertently learning to become dependent on them. Think about what might happen if your lucky pen or charm is suddenly misplaced, damaged, or stolen, or you run out of water. Since you have learned to associate these items with remaining calm, once they are removed, there is a high chance your anxiety will escalate, and avoidance may be your go-to (but unhelpful) strategy to cope.
4.) ONLY ENGAGING IN ACTIVITIES WHEN FEELING CALM
Have you ever been invited somewhere, only to check in with your anxiety, realize its presence, and respond that you can't make it? Or when deciding whether to go for a walk, or to make a phone call, thinking to yourself, "I'm too anxious right now, but once my anxiety calms down, then mayyybe I'll be up for it."
When you base decisions completely off of how anxious you feel, your mind begins to view anxiety as a powerful force - a bad force - that is in control of your actions and how you live your day. This is not the case. The best way for your mind to learn this, is to intentionally engage in activities while experiencing some anxiety. Remember that feelings are not black and white - feeling 100% anxious or 100% calm. There is variability. You want to start building up evidence that you can in fact walk around the park, even when feeling anxious, that you can meet a friend for lunch even if not 100% calm. Once you approach situations, anxiety and all, your mind will start to view anxiety as less of a threat, less of an obstacle, and less of a boss! While may tell yourself, "I can't do X while feeling anxious," I encourage you to test this prediction out, then make note of all the small ways you surprised yourself.
5.) AVOIDING, AVOIDING, AVOIDING!
Anxiety is uncomfortable, so it makes sense that you may want to avoid situations that make you feel anxious. However, situations themselves cannot cause anxiety; if they did, all situations would need to come with anxiety-warning labels, and be decked out with caution tape! Instead, what happens is that your mind begins to formulate specific thoughts about a situation - and depending on what these thoughts are, you will be tempted to either approach or avoid. Think for a minute about a situation you may be avoiding, and all the automatic thoughts that come to mind when thinking about it. Before engaging in avoidance, it is important to evaluate these thoughts to make sure they are accurate. This is an important step! Why? Because every time you avoid a situation, your mind is learning that the situation you just avoided is to be feared - that for some reason, it is "bad" or "wrong." Ongoing avoidance ultimately builds up evidence that the situation is "very bad," "very wrong," and that you cannot cope. As the avoidance increases, your fear of this situation will multiply, and you'll probably become on edge anytime this situation/activity is mentioned. The truth is, the situation you are avoiding may in fact be harmless, but it was your erroneous interpretations/thoughts that made it "bad." Feeling stuck on how to determine whether your interpretations are accurate? You are not alone. A trained Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist (CBT Therapist) can help!
6.) RUMINATING ON WORST-CASE SCENARIOS
Imagining a worst-case scenario will absolutely evoke anxiety in anyone - especially when repeated over and over in ones mind, seeing it as the most likely outcome of a situation. Your mind and body gets scared, and anxious symptoms develop. Remember, a worst-case scenario is only one of many options, and one that rarely, if ever, comes to fruition. I often hear the argument that worrying about worst-case scenarios is helpful, in that it allows you to prepare yourself just in case they happen. When I hear this, I encourage my client to think about how the act of worrying, itself, is actually preparing them. Problem-solving by coming up with a way to cope is certainly an effective preparation strategy, but once this plan is created, the act of worrying, itself, only serves to keep you caught in a loop of feeling like you can't cope. Remember to pause and ask yourself, what are some other possible outcomes here? And if a worse-case did happen, what would be my action plan?
DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on www.StacySmithCounseling.com contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website.