What’s the Opposite of Anxiety, and How Do You Get There?
Finding out, and fixing, what’s beneath your anxiety.
Posted Aug 19, 2020
Somewhat surprisingly, the emotion of anxiety has an enormous variety of antonyms. And which ones best fit all depend on what aspect of anxiety you’re exploring.
If you focus on its uptight facets, “happy-go-lucky,” “carefree,” or “cavalier” could be seen as directly contrasting with it.
If you’re considering its vigilant elements, “apathetic,” “passive,” “disinterested,” “nonchalant,” or unconcerned” would be seen as its most pertinent contraries.
Center on the disconcerted or discombobulated conditions that accompany it, and then “calm,” “relaxed,” “serene,” “at ease,” “placid,” “self-possessed,” “composed,” or “collected” would comprise good cognitive antidotes for such an unbalanced, addled state.
Quite aware of this confounding multiplicity, dictionaries and thesauruses have suggested a great diversification of antonyms, each of them more or less applicable in any particular context. So we have “untroubled,” “happy,” “peaceful,” and “contented”; “indifferent, “uninterested,” or uninvolved”; “impersonal,” “detached,” “remote,” or "aloof”; “cool-headed,” “mindful,” “even-tempered,” “dispassionate,” or (to the extreme) “stoical.”
Here, we sort out the synonyms and antonyms that in different ways and at different times are most similar, or opposed, to this fundamental emotion. Repeatedly, however, the endeavor has felt as though I might be falling head-first into the orbit of the arbitrary. I could have grouped these synonyms differently, with about the same amount of (comparative) validity.
Finally, to most accurately comprehend the frequently overlapping, but sometimes distinct, antonyms for anxiety, I’ll furnish an abbreviated listing of the many complementary synonyms for this terribly uncomfortable emotion. And here we have “jittery,” “antsy,” “insecure,” “nervous,” “tense,” “worried,” “worrisome,” “unnerving,” “nerve-racking,” “upset” “distraught,” “apprehensive,” “fretful,” and “keyed up.”
What all this comes down to is that the whole notion of anxiety is so encompassing, incorporates so many different, though not-unrelated variations, that there can be no definitive synonym—or antonym—for it. Again, it all depends on context. If it’s about the fear of strangers, “courage” might be its best antonym; or, if it links to an emerging fear of suffering additional panic attacks, words like “calm,” “relaxed,” “self-possessed”, and “cool and collected” might all characterize its cognitive antidotes.
Self-Confidence: The Core Opposite of Anxiety?
Ask yourself: If you had more self-confidence, or believed in yourself more deeply, would you still experience fear in presenting yourself to others—especially strangers (as do so many of us if our family’s reactions to us made us feel particularly insecure as children)? Or if, say, you were confident you could “ride out” a panic attack, would they still terrify you?
Curiously, self-confidence as an antonym for anxiety isn’t regularly mentioned in thesauruses, although Merriam-Webster defines it as being a “near antonym” (along with its cousins “self-assured” and “self-controlled”).
In an article entitled “What Is the Opposite of Anxiety,” life coach Renee Jain, discusses her own irrational bouts of anxiety, concluding that it was finally courage that enabled her to end them. What kept intruding were all her negative “what if’s.” As in, how humiliating it would be if what I did or said was put down, rejected, laughed at, ignored, perceived as silly, or worthless. Or if I publicly failed at something? For it is fearful premonitions like these that underlie most anxiety, which in turn holds us back from managing our unfavorable self-biases constructively.
When Jain describes a situation in which she was able to move beyond her anxiety, she writes of how she discovered deep within her “a wellspring of confidence.” And in a great many instances (far more than most people realize) it’s confidence—or self-confidence—that constitutes the exact opposite of anxiety, and so represents the ultimate remedy for overcoming it.
At last, the antonym that Jain prefers to link most intimately to anxiety is trust. And that’s essentially about having faith in yourself, believing in your innate capabilities and resilience. Still, I prefer the term self-confidence because although I employ it to mean very much what Jain describes as self-trust, it seems to more concretely portray what’s absent when a person’s anxiety causes healthier reactions to be delayed or squashed—and so ends up defeating their conscious intentions.
The term probably closest to self-confidence is self-efficacy. And both hyphenated words reflect an inner strength that induces an all-important “can do” attitude. After all, if you don’t believe you can do something, there’s not much chance you’ll even try. Is there? But if your abiding assumption (based on reality and not illusion) is that you’re likely to succeed in most things you set your mind to, procrastination or some other form of avoidance won’t undermine your response.
If you look at the many synonyms enumerated earlier, you might ask yourself how gradually growing your self-confidence could effectively address whatever longstanding problems your self-protective, but ultimately self-sabotaging, anxiety has caused you.
Moving Beyond Your Anxiety
In terms of what needs to be understood, and then rectified, it’s useful to know how you got this way, to begin with. Odds are that the people you “entrusted” your self-image to abused their authority by (however inadvertently) routinely giving you messages that focused on your deficiencies rather than your strengths.
Many caretakers assume that the best way to socialize their children and prepare them to become independent, responsible adults is to regularly point out what they’re doing wrong, or what they’re not yet able to do. When these discouraging messages get drilled into children often enough, they come to doubt their essential capabilities.
And this self-doubt inevitably leads to anxiety—the fear that what is undertaken will fail, and so further confirm the validity of their parents’ lack of faith in them. Unquestionably, we all need parents to trust that if we put enough effort into a task we’ll generally succeed. But it’s less likely we’ll be motivated to do this if they made us suspicious of our ability to reach the quite possibly exaggerated expectations they established for us.
Moreover, the fallout from lacking the external validation we were too young to provide for ourselves can be immense. It can set us up for a lifetime of vacillating over or giving up entirely on ventures prematurely, which with enough perseverance we might well emerge triumphant. And it’s crucial to add here that when we grow older—maybe even despite ourselves—we can hardly help but develop greater mental, emotional, and physical resources. Yet this growth can occur without in any way eradicating our “felt” deficiencies or changing our outdated, self-defeating programming. Unless that is, we become more aware of what, unconsciously, our cautiousness has been costing us.
Again, ask yourself:
- How fearful am I that making a mistake or being more assertive could lead others to reject me?
- Have I developed the seriously self-sabotaging habit of perfectionism, compelling me to shy away from everything I can’t in advance be sure of doing superlatively?
- How often do I avoid taking risks for fear of failure, when its odds are considerably less than those of succeeding? And what may this have compromised in terms of my overall achievements, which consequently would have enhanced my self-confidence?
In 5 Reasons People Have Low Self-Confidence, Barbara Markway encapsulates her findings by noting that “your genes [and temperament], cultural background, childhood experiences [including trauma, bullying, dysfunctional parenting, gender, race, and sexual orientation] all play a role,” and that “although we can’t change the experiences in our past that shaped us, there is plenty we can do to alter our [present-day] thoughts and expectations to gain more confidence.”
Here are some tips that should assist you in changing the negative assumptions, self-biases, and beliefs that have kept you from getting over your anxiety through, step by step, building your self-confidence. And many of these ideas are adapted from M. N. Seif’s “Paradoxical Attitude Necessary to Overcome Anxiety” (n.d.) since so many of the constrictions you may have placed on yourself aren’t really logical.
- Your feelings of anxiety, born of self-doubt, can’t be trusted. When outward circumstances automatically re-activate these pessimistic thoughts, question how legitimate they actually are. Even when they may feel authentic (since your feelings emanate mostly from childhood fears) can you nevertheless attempt to see whether you can rationally talk yourself out of them?
- Your attempts to avoid anxiety and the emotional suffering that comes from it only make this state stronger and more intense.
- Contriving to reduce your anxiety in the short-term only increases it in the long-term.
- To reduce future anxiety you’ll need to accept it getting worse in the present, which is why so many authors talk about summoning up more courage to confront it early and head-on.
- The more you can accept your anxiety, simply allowing it to be, the more quickly it will subside.
- Don’t beat yourself up because you’re feeling anxious: you’re not to blame for having adopted anxiety in the past as a coping mechanism to avoid feeling the pain of being criticized by others—or, indeed, by yourself.
But if none of these suggestions work for you, consider that you may require the help of a professional to get you to talk to your “inner children” in a manner that will convince them that their anxiety-laden, no-longer-adaptive defenses are not now what’s needed: That you—the adult they grew up into—is competent enough to protect them and safeguard their hopes and desires in ways that their anxiety never could.
© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Bratt, W. (2015, Jan 9). The relationship between confidence and anxiety. https://drmartinseif.com/paradoxical-attitude/
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Markway, B. (2018, Dec 07). 5 reasons people have low self-confidence. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/shyness-is-nice/201812/5-reasons-people-have-low-self-confidence
Moore, B. A. (2014). Taking control of anxiety. New York: APA Publications.
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Seif, M. N. (n.d.) Paradoxical attitude necessary to overcome anxiety. https://drmartinseif.com/paradoxical-attitude/
Seltzer, L. F. (2015, May 15). Anxiety and self-doubt: Perfect recipe for underachievement. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/evolution-the-self/201505/anxiety-and-self-doubt-perfect-recipe-underachievement
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Weber, J. P. (2019, Mar 11). Is low self-esteem making you anxious? https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/having-sex-wanting-intimacy/201903/is-low-self-esteem-making-you-anxious