We all know the familiar feeling of anxiety. Your heart begins to beat faster, your breath quickens, and you start to feel butterflies in your stomach. You may feel constriction or tightness in your throat or chest. Mentally, you start to feel keyed up and vigilant—on guard for what might happen next. Your thoughts start racing a mile a minute as you try to come up with a way to control the situation.
These are all typical reactions when your brain sends your body into “fight or flight"; you may also feel frozen and unable to think clearly as your brain triggers a “freeze” response. Your instinct is to try to make the anxiety go away, but that won’t work. Many of the common ways you react to anxiety are unhelpful and can even make things worse—and the best way to handle anxiety is not what you think.
Below are four unhelpful ways of reacting to anxiety.
Trying to Make the Anxiety Go Away
This strategy is unhelpful for a simple reason: because it doesn’t work. You can’t make anxiety go away by willpower alone. Fear and anxiety are wired-in responses of your brain and body that have their roots in the history of our species. Our ancestors faced dangerous predators and other dangers; those who reacted more quickly to get away were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Anxiety is a signal that you need to pay attention to something that your brain thinks is important to your survival. Your brain triggers the release of cortisol to rev your body up to fight or run away. It may be a false alarm—but trying to shove it down will only make it stronger.
Looking for Reassurance
Many of us react to anxiety and worry by frantically seeking information, hoping to find a definitive answer or a way to feel completely safe and in control. The problem is that most of the things you get anxious about are threats that you can’t completely eliminate. Life is full of hidden dangers. You could get run over crossing the street, you could get a serious illness, lose your job, or be a victim of crime. There are also seldom definite answers to life's complicated problems. If your partner is acting more distant, this may or may not be a sign that the relationship is threatened. Even if he reassures you that nothing is wrong, you probably won’t believe it. You can’t predict the future or have complete security. When you frantically search the internet for reassurance that the fatigue you’re feeling isn’t cancer, you will likely find all kinds of information that will make you more scared. Many symptoms, such as fatigue, are most likely benign, but they can also be a sign of something serious. When you seek reassurance from others, they may provide information that makes you feel worse or bring up a negative possibility you hadn’t thought of—or they may just placate you without really believing what they're telling you.
Ruminating and Worrying
Worry has been defined as the cognitive component of anxiety. Many of us respond to anxiety by worrying and analyzing the situation, going over different possible responses in our minds. While some anticipation and interpretation is helpful, most of us do this too much, and our thinking starts to get repetitive and more negative. When you ruminate, you begin to doubt and second-guess yourself. Alternatively, you may feel unable to let go and become vigilant, repeatedly checking e-mail or social media for new information. Worry can take you down a rabbit hole quickly. “Why hasn’t he called?” “Will she call me back?” “Maybe I did something to put him off.” “What could I have done?” “Maybe I wasn’t interesting enough?” “Why am I always so boring?” and on and on.
When you get anxious, your body’s “fight or flight” response makes you want to run away or escape. You feel a pull to avoid the uncomfortable situation—whether it’s going to a party, starting a difficult project, or confronting someone who has treated you badly. The problem with avoidance, however, is that it makes anxiety worse in the long-run. You may experience some short-term relief at being away from the situation, but running away makes it more difficult to face things the next time. You begin to see yourself as someone who can’t cope with the situation; as a result, the situation itself starts to feel more aversive and threatening. In fact, the best response to anxiety is to do just the opposite: When you deliberately face situations you fear, the fear starts to go down as your brain registers that nothing terrible is happening.
What Should You Do When You’re Anxious?
The most important thing to do is exactly the opposite of what you think: You need to work on accepting the anxiety. You can’t make it go away and avoidance makes things worse. What choice do you have but to live with it?
The best way to live with it is to allow it to be there and mindfully observe it, rather than reacting automatically. Once you accept that the anxiety is there, you begin to change your relationship with it. You can evaluate if there is any real threat or emergency action needed. You can think about a wise, strategic response to the situation, or you can make a decision to tolerate the discomfort and act anyway, because it’s worth feeling anxious so you don’t act like a doormat or miss a valuable career opportunity.
If the anxiety is so intense that you can’t think, then you need to stop what you’re doing and breathe, feel your feet on the ground, and notice that in most instances, nothing dangerous is happening right now—it’s mostly in your head. When you do that, you'll feel a sense of groundedness, despite the anxiety.