Even if you don't identify with having an anxiety disorder, every person experiences anxiety at times. There's tons of advice out there on how to cope with it, but unfortunately, it's not all serving. Here are five things you might be doing with good intention that are actually contributing to feelings of anxiety:
1. Avoiding it.
We live in a world where, for many of us, we have the luxury (and misfortune) of stopping our discomfort when we feel it. We can take painkillers at the first sign of a headache or physical discomfort, and we can eat, drink, pick our nails, or pop an Ativan at the first sign of an uncomfortable feeling.
Sometimes, this avoidance is necessary for coping; other times, we're doing ourselves a disservice. See, one of the most important ways of coping with anxiety is learning emotional tolerance (something for which yoga and meditation are great practices). When we learn to observe an emotion (or any sensation) with compassion and without judgment, we are more able to react appropriately and feel "in control" of them.
However, in order to practice emotional tolerance, we need to be able to feel the emotion first, and avoiding such emotions leaves us that much more dependent on our vice or substance(s). So, next time you reach for the bottle or the doughnut, try making some space for your anxiety for 30 seconds without judging it or beating yourself up.
2. Trying to orchestrate our lives in such a way that we never feel it.
Like depression, anxiety can lie to you. It's not lying to you when it's saying "Something is coming up that I'd better prepare for" or "You don't know what to expect tomorrow," but it is lying when it says "Avoiding social situations will make you less anxious" or "Don't try anything you could fail doing because that'll keep you happy."
If we listen to anxiety in many cases, we end up missing opportunities, isolating socially, and, as described in the previous point, becoming more and more afraid of anxiety provoking situations. I hate flying, and the longer I go without getting on a plane, the more it terrifies me. Just as I have to expose myself to flying by doing it as often as I can afford, we need to expose ourselves to anxiety to become more comfortable with the discomfort it causes (and be able to live our lives alongside it, rather live restricted by it).
3. Beating ourselves up for feeling it.
For many of us, we feel our initial anxiety, then we feel anxious for feeling anxious. Or ashamed. Or frustrated. Or afraid. Or pressured to control it. We tell ourselves stories that we're not coping properly, or that we're weak. Just like every other emotion you feel, I encourage you to give yourself permission to feel anxious and make space for it. (Side note: not giving yourself permission to feel it won't make it go away, it'll just make you feel ashamed for feeling it.)
Empathize with what you're feeling as you would a friend, practice self-compassion, seek support and tap into some coping strategies. Like any other emotion, it is impermanent. It will come and it will go, and sometimes we just need to take care of ourselves until it goes.
4. Pathologizing it.
The other day I was talking to a client who was telling me how anxiety had been really high for her over the past two weeks, and she was distraught and angry with herself for "being such an anxious person." When I asked her if there'd been anything going on for her in the past two weeks, she casually mentioned that her best friend had been diagnosed with cancer, her stepson had shown up on her doorstep broke and needing somewhere to stay, and her boss announced that the company would be doing layoffs in the fall. No freaking wonder she was anxious!
See, we've come to a place in our society where we pathologize anything that's not happiness. The dominant narratives in our society paint a picture of happiness and ease, and fashion, beauty, weight loss, and pharmaceutical industries make a lot of money telling you there's something wrong with you if you're not calm and/or happy all the time.
So if you're feeling anxious, don't immediately conclude that you have an anxiety disorder or are an "anxious person." It could very well be that there are things going on in your life for which you need support, you're in an unfamiliar situation, or you're engaging in something in which you lack confidence. In this case, anxiety can be a helpful indicator.
5. Dreading it.
Ever feel anxious just thinking about the next time you're going to feel anxious? What happens if you get so anxious you have a panic attack? What happens if you people notice? How will you cope? You don't want to experience that (again!). Must. Focus. On not. Getting anxious!
There are a few problems with this. First, it contaminates your ability to enjoy the present moment, because you're focused on the future possibility of anxiety. Second, it leads to doing more of #2, so you prevent yourself from doing things that help you learn to tolerate and cope with anxiety.
Finally, it's kind of pointless as you can't predict or control what's going to happen next in your life that might cause anxiety, or when anxiety might show up unexpectedly. So, remind yourself it's (relatively out of your control), allow yourself to embrace the present moment, and continue to surf all those waves of emotions rather than just the good ones.
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.