- People who struggle with anxiety could learn from the behaviors of those who do not have anxiety issues.
- People with low anxiety levels do not invalidate their anxiety.
- Avoidance of feared situations and excessive reassurance perpetuates anxiety.
A mother checks a video monitor multiple times during her toddler’s naps to make sure he is breathing.
A tech executive wants to find a partner but is so afraid of being judged that she avoids going on dating apps.
A young man feels anxiety before a job interview and proceeds to berate himself for being so weak.
Virtually everyone experiences some anxiety at least once in a while. However, those with problematic anxiety tend to do things that inadvertently reinforce their fear and make it worse.
I often give my clients a reality check and say, “If a person didn’t have problems with anxiety, would they be doing this behavior?”
It is much easier to tell someone to stop doing something than to actually stop, but gaining awareness of these anxiety behavior pitfalls is an excellent first step. In turn, the more you can start to act like a person who doesn’t have anxiety struggles, the better off you will be in the long run.
Here are three things to learn from people who do not have problems with anxiety.
1. Don’t invalidate yourself when you feel anxious.
When people with low baseline anxiety get anxious, they don’t beat themselves up about it. They accept it. They realize getting nervous before giving a speech, during a test, or looking over a railing on a high floor is normal. They quickly process why they are anxious and don’t judge themselves for feeling this way. The feelings then eventually dissolve on their own.
On the contrary, many people with anxiety problems berate themselves for experiencing anxiety, which only makes it worse. For example, many men, who are socialized to be strong and calm, believe that anxiety is a sign of weakness.
When you are feeling anxious, tell yourself that it is OK to feel that way. Just because you feel that way, it doesn’t mean that some catastrophe is about to occur. If you can identify the trigger to your anxiety, tell yourself, “I’m feeling anxious because________, and that makes sense/is OK because___________.”
For example, I’m feeling anxious because I just heard about someone having a heart attack, and I started to worry about my health. That makes sense because I’m prone to health anxiety.
If you can’t identify a trigger, you can tell yourself that even though you don’t know why you are anxious, it will just pass on its own.
2. Don’t avoid anxiety-provoking situations.
Nobody wants to feel anxious, and it makes sense that avoidance and anxiety go hand-in-hand. Avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations is self-reinforcing: anxiety decreases, and there is a sense of relief when something is avoided. The message is: phew, glad I got to avoid that scary thing.
However, by avoiding, you never learn that you can handle a situation. Instead makes it seem even more threatening, perpetuating the anxiety the next time you are confronted with that situation. Plus, using avoidance as a strategy can make your world smaller and smaller.
People who don’t struggle with anxiety do things even though they feel anxious, such as giving a speech, before taking a flight if they haven’t flown in a long time, or dealing with a difficult financial situation. They don’t avoid; they just do it.
If you tend to avoid, it can be hard to confront a feared situation. So, consider breaking down the situation and practicing. For example, someone with a driving phobia could start by just sitting on the driver’s side of a parked car. Then they could practice driving in an empty parking lot, then on a quiet side street, and then in more traffic.
Alternatively, you could work on making the situation more manageable. If you are anxious about going to a party where you don’t know anyone, commit to yourself that you will go for a half-hour or bring someone with you.
3. Don’t excessively seek reassurance when feeling anxious.
We all want a little reassurance sometimes. Maybe you have an unusual physical symptom. You consult WebMD or ask your partner or family member if they think it is something serious. Or perhaps you think you left the stove on and go to check on it. Occasional reassurance seeking is fine, but when it becomes more frequent, it is usually a problem.
For someone who struggles with anxiety, reassurance can be almost like an addictive drug: it feels good at the moment because it reduces anxiety. However, the next time there is another anxiety spike, there is more reassurance seeking. The person does not learn how to tolerate the anxiety independently. They deprive themselves of learning that anxiety will always naturally eventually fade.
If it’s too difficult to stop yourself from reassurance-seeking, see if you can resist for at least a little bit of time (even if only 30 seconds). The next time the urge occurs, see if you can resist a little longer.
If you frequently turn to someone for reassurance, tell them that you appreciate their willingness to help you, but tell them that the reassurance is counterproductive for anxiety management. You both can come up with something they can say the next time you ask for reassurance, such as, “I know you want reassurance from me, but since it’s going to reinforce your anxiety, I’m going to resist giving it to you.”
Remember that almost everyone experiences anxiety at least some of the time. The difference between those who struggle with anxiety and those who don’t is how people deal with it.
You can start by asking yourself if a typical non-anxious person would act in a certain way. If the answer is no, challenge yourself to begin to make some changes.