Anxiety is a very normal but a very unwelcome feeling. Most of us would choose not to experience it if we could.
In some ways, it’s like a smoke alarm, said Natasha Reynolds, a psychotherapist at Bloom Psychology & Wellness in Toronto. That smoke detector alerts you to actual danger and allows you to get out of your home safely, but it also alerts you to things that aren’t actually dangerous, like how a smoke alarm can go off over a piece of burnt toast.
Similarly, “that threat detection part of our brain… might go off at what it perceives as a threat, but it’s not truly dangerous to us,” Reynolds said.
When that smoke alarm goes off frequently to things that aren’t dangerous, it can be a sign to seek support and develop tools to navigate this stress response, Reynolds said. Additionally, common thoughts, behaviors and actions make your anxiety smoke alarm go off more frequently than it should. Here’s what they are:
“A common unhelpful thinking pattern can be called black-and-white thinking, or also known as all-or-nothing thinking,” Reynolds said.
This kind could mean looking at situations as good or bad and not considering the gray areas, Reynolds explained.
“So, for example … if I made an error in an email, this must mean I’m incompetent, and the other person thinks this too,” she said. In reality, it doesn’t mean you’re incompetent; a mistake means you’re human, and the person on the receiving end thinks this, too (that is, if they even notice the mistake).
These thoughts can get you down and even make future communications really stressful, causing anxiety to creep in every time you have to email this person or even causing you to stop emailing altogether.
Speaking of stopping something altogether, therapists say this is another habit that can have a negative effect on you.
“The No. 1 behavior, I believe, that makes anxiety worse is avoidance,” said Jennifer Anders, a Colorado-based psychologist who runs The.Anxiety.Doc Instagram account. “This is actually counterintuitive to what most people believe. Anxiety becomes worse when you avoid the situation, or the place, or the people that trigger your anxiety.”
Just think about it: If you avoid looking at a credit card balance because of the anxiety it gives you, by the time you do look at that balance, you’ll be riddled with anxiety — and that comes after weeks and weeks of stress looming over you.
“The avoidance fuels that cycle of anxiety, and kind of reinforces that bodily response and exacerbates anxiety over time,” Anders said.
Justine Grosso, a psychologist in North Carolina who also shares mental health insight on her Instagram account, said instead of avoiding a situation, you should incrementally approach it.
With social anxiety, for example, Grosso said instead of going to a big party, schedule a one-on-one coffee date with a new friend or go to the party for 10 minutes and leave.
“We want to approach things and be willing to tolerate a little bit of discomfort in the service of our values. Meaning, if we value friendship… it’s going to be meaningful for us to approach these social interactions instead of avoid them,” Grosso explained.
“It’s important after we do something that is anxiety provoking, to literally take time, and tell our brain, ‘Hey, we survived this thing, we did this hard thing, and we survived,’” Grosso added.
Constantly asking for other people’s feedback on a situation or even Googling your health symptoms is also contributing to your anxiety, Anders said. These kinds of behaviors are known as seeking reassurance.
“In the short term, the self-reassurance quells that worry feedback loop in your mind, but in the long term, it actually creates this other negative feedback loop that requires reassurance just to feel OK,” Anders said.
In other words, reassurance is a quick fix but won’t do any favors for your anxiety in the long term.
“I always encourage people to refrain from doing that as much as possible,” Anders said because it significantly increases anxiety in the long haul for many people.
Have you worried that your anxiety would cause you to faint and you’d receive no help from those around you? Or have you ever mailed your rent check late and assumed this means you’ll be immediately evicted?
This is known as catastrophizing, which is thinking about the worst-case scenario and believing that this scenario is what’s most likely to occur, according to Reynolds. As you may expect, catastrophizing contributes to anxiety.
“According to cognitive behavioral therapy, they talk about anxiety being a result of us overestimating the situation and then underestimating our ability to cope with that,” Reynolds said.
It can be helpful to challenge these worst-case-scenario ideas by saying, “What if it all works out?” Reynolds said. “Because anxiety is not thinking of the best-case scenario.”
Additionally, thinking about the actionable ways you could deal with a bad situation can be useful. “If the worst-case scenario were to play out, what are your strengths in coping with it that we might be underestimating in that moment, as well?” Reynolds said.
In other words, if you did faint, would no one help you? Could you talk to loved ones about this possibility so they can be prepared to step in? Or if you did mail your rent check late, could you pay a late fee to your landlord?
The worst-case scenario usually doesn’t happen, but a catastrophizing thought pattern can convince you it will.
It turns out that telling yourself you’re not good enough or that something isn’t going to work out is more than mean; it’s adding to your anxiety, too, according to Anders.
“This is a huge one that, again, many people are not aware of how they talk to themselves and the words that they use to describe themselves as they go through their daily life and their daily activities,” Anders said.
These words are often really harsh — way more harsh than how we’d talk to friends or family.
“I really encourage people to pay attention to the words they’re using with themselves, and the first step is not to change it. The first step is to just bring awareness to it,” Anders said.
According to Anders, people-pleasing can also fuel your anxiety. Think about it: When you’re constantly putting other people’s needs and opinions above your own, you create some uncomfortable feelings for yourself, including anxiety. What’s more, she added that it makes you feel like you’re neglecting yourself, which can cause anxiety.
Anders said many people, particularly women, are conditioned to put other people’s needs above their own, which makes this a hard habit to break.
“This really creates a dynamic of self-neglect, prioritizing everyone else’s wishes and needs above your own, [and] poor boundaries is something else that this leads to,” Anders said.
“And, really, just developing self-worth that’s contingent on other people, and what you do for other people, that’s a huge, huge one that contributes anxiety,” she noted.
Ways To Address These Anxiety-Inducing Habits
To combat these behaviors, “grounding skills can be really helpful,” Grosso said. Grounding skills can lower the heart rate and bring on a state of ease that just isn’t there during an anxiety tailspin.
Grounding activities include going for a walk and or doing a workout, Grosso said. Additionally, Grosso said mindfulness skills can help, too. “Like becoming aware of your five senses — taste, touch, sight, smell, sound — and the reason why connecting to our five senses is grounding is because it literally gets us into the present moment,” Grosso said.
Additionally, Reynolds said she likes to encourage people to do belly breathing, “which is taking deep intentional breaths and as you’re inhaling, you’re extending your belly forward, and as you’re exhaling, you’re bringing your belly in.” This sends more oxygen to the brain and helps bring you a sense of calm, Reynolds said.
It’s also helpful to name the anxiety-inducing behavior when it’s happening. “The way to be mindful of our thought patterns is to essentially label them when they happen. ‘Oh, there I go, catastrophizing, let me notice that,’” Grosso said.
Or, take a few moments to name the negative self-talk or reassurance-seeking that’s happening, too. “And then shift your focus onto the present moment,” Grosso said.
Over time, you can learn how to distance yourself from these thoughts and become aware of them when they’re happening so you can remind yourself that they aren’t helpful and are, in fact, not reality, either.
Beyond at-home tools for dealing with anxiety, it can also be helpful to seek professional help; anxiety can be more complicated than it lets on.
“Another interesting take on anxiety is that anxiety might actually be a secondary emotion and kind of covering up another emotion that you’re feeling that you deem unacceptable,” Grosso said.
You may have been raised to think that being angry isn’t acceptable, or you may be harboring grief presenting as anxiety. In other words, there could be larger problems at play, which is where advice from a therapist can help.
“I think psychotherapy is a really powerful experience to just better understand ourselves, understand our emotions and why we do the things we do,” Grosso said.
You can use databases like Psychology Today and Inclusive Therapists to find therapists near you.