10 things that make anxiety worseWhen your feelings of anxiety become intense, it’s only natural to want to rid them from your system as quickly as possible. This is particularly true if your anxious thoughts are making it impossible to attend to activities of daily living; such as focusing on work or family. Heck, anxiety can even interfere with your ability to talk coherently.

If you struggle with an anxiety disorder, you likely know that intense feelings often come in waves – sometimes from out of the blue. When the “anxiety wave” is at its full force, it’s easy to reach for anything that promises instant relief. But can some behaviors paradoxically make the anxiety wave stronger?

In my experience as an anxiety therapist in Chicago, there are 10 specific things people do that unintentionally make their anxiety worse. Through the lens of self-compassion, I encourage you to review these behaviors as a way of gaining greater insight into your own relationship with this disorder.

And so what follows is a basic rundown of 10 anxiety worsening behaviors that you really can’t ignore. Read them all in order to fully absorb their collective meaning. Avoid the temptation of judging yourself as part of this exercise.

Let’s jump right in!

1. Denial

When you pretend anxiety isn’t part of your life, you engage in the cognitive distortion known as denial. This can have the unintentional effect of amplifying what you are feeling.

People with OCD and specific phobias particularly need to be mindful of this point.

2. Avoidance

While it may seem logical at first to avoid things that scare you, engaging in “hiding” behaviors can actually make things worse. Those fears also have a way of bleeding into other areas.

Example: If you fear driving on the highway and only use side-roads, you may develop a fear of driving on fast, crowded streets. That’s the paradoxical cruelty of an anxiety disorder. It is for this reason it is better to embrace our mental health issues rather than deny their existence.

3. Fishing for Reassurances

“I’m not fat, am I?” is a question you may ask someone in an effort to gain reassurance. The premise of the question, however, suggests that you already think you are fat.

The reassurance you are looking to receive only reinforces your core, irrational belief. This in turn can make things worse by contributing to toxic thinking.

4. Magical Thinking

If you are hoping for someone to pull out a magic wand and take away your anxiety, you may be waiting a long time. If you have an anxiety disorder, you were wired that way. Meantime, while you are waiting for that wand to appear, your anxiety is growing stronger.

Magical thinking is part of a larger family of cognitive distortions that can negatively impact anxiety. There’s no such thing as a “quick fix” or “instant cure”. Instead, think amelioration and reduction. Don’t spend one minute feeling ashamed of having an anxiety disorder either. Shame is one of anxiety’s most powerful friends.

5. Downing Herbal Drinks

Sure – drinking something that is soothing and relaxing can help to calm your nerves but don’t rely on them exclusively. You may be making your anxiety worse by getting hooked on a temporary crutch.

If you do choose an herbal drink, pick something non-caffeinated and sip on it as opposed to chugging it. Make sure you drink teas that are known to help your particular anxiety disorder. Think of herbal teas and other natural remedies for anxiety as part of a larger strategy for anxiety management.

6. Thought Stopping

Trying to force thoughts to stop using a rubber-band or other device may offer a bit of momentary relief but ultimately, the thoughts will not disappear. In fact, you may be making anxiety worse paradoxically through denial (see point 1).

Instead, learn the 9 types of cognitive behavioral therapy and consider partaking in Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). Remember the wave analogy mentioned at the start of this post? The more you try to “control” your anxiety, the more power you give it.

7. Relying just on the medications

Medications can and do offer some relief with anxiety but if you are using this approach exclusively as a coping strategy, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

Think about it – what will happen when the medication doesn’t work as well as it used to? Also, what will happen if you decide to come off the medication? This is why it is important to combine medications with other treatment approaches, such as strength training and talk therapy – preferably with a CBT slant (see next point).

8. Analysis (Psychoanalysis)

This type of talk-therapy is mostly concerned about your childhood and past. For some people, it can offer benefits in terms of emotional catharsis. I’m not knocking it because it does have its uses.

The scientific literature, however, suggests that it is not the most effective talk-therapy approach for treating anxiety. The same holds true for anxiety’s buddy – depression. Consider some form of CBT therapy instead or work with a counselor who uses an integrative approach centered on the here and now.

9. Alcohol and Drugs

You may be tempted to reach for a drink or use some illicit drug to quell your anxiety, but the benefit (if any) will likely be temporary and can make your anxiety worse in the long run. Alcohol and drugs can also cause you to develop a dependency/addiction.

10. Engaging in Learned Helplessness

If you have adopted the mindset that you are powerless over your thoughts and your feelings and hold the belief: “There’s nothing I can do about my anxiety” you are perpetuating a viscious cycle, thereby making things worse.

Successful people have learned to avoid the trap of learned helplessness and instead, take active steps to work through emotional life challenges with an eye towards healing.

Final Thoughts

Anxiety doesn’t work like a light switch that can somehow be turned on or off instantly. If only it were true! What is possible, however, is to learn how to rethink your relationship with anxiety so that it becomes more manageable. FYI: As a matter of self-disclosure, I have OCD and have blogged about this in the past.

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