Anxiety sucks. When it rears its ugly head, it can take over all of your mental space. And even give you some pretty distressing physical symptoms. It can interfere with the way you live, work, and socialize. So it’s only natural that if you’re living with anxiety, you probably curse the dreaded condition. And you might spend a lot of time thinking about the easiest, quickest, most effective ways to banish it from your brain.
But let’s slow down a bit here. One of the hallmarks of anxiety is overthinking things, right? You might actually be overthinking how you “get rid” of your anxiety. And even, according to some experts, misunderstanding this condition and missing some of what they call “benefits” of it. Sure, it’s pretty tough to think of benefits when it comes to anxiety. But let’s hear them out, as well as look at what we all might be getting wrong when it comes to working with our anxiety.
What Anxiety Looks Like
Before we look at some of what some experts say are the common mistakes we make when it comes to anxiety, let’s remind ourselves of what anxiety looks like. Anyone can experience run of the mill anxiety. Say when doing some public speaking, but anxiety as a disorder can mean excessive anxious feelings that interfere with your life and can even become all-consuming. The signs of generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
And remember, there can be other types of specific anxiety, like phobias and social anxiety, so you might experience other signs in addition to these.
What Many People Are Getting Wrong
If you’re experiencing the symptoms above, it’s only natural that you’ll want to find some relief. Therapy is a great idea; in fact, if you don’t deal with your anxiety in a therapeutic setting, it could get worse. But outside of that, you might have strategies to work on your anxious feelings on your own, which is not a bad thing. But some experts warn of being careful about making the following mistakes:
1. Believing you can think your way out of your anxiety
This is a big one. You know you’re intelligent and can think your way out of problems. But when anxiety hits, your thinking can get clouded by overwhelming feelings that aren’t necessarily rational. That means trying to think your way out of it can just lead you into a confusing maze of thoughts and feelings, which can in turn lead you to trust yourself even less. You might then become even more anxious.
So instead of trying to think your way out of anxiety, psychologist Alice Boyes, Ph.D., suggests that you “Make a short list of your choices. It can often help to involve someone else in this to uncloud your thinking. Include any choices you’ve ruled out as being too anxiety-provoking. With a bit of space and perspective, you may realize your best option is one of these.”
2. Thinking you should find a “perfect” way to move forward
If you’ve got anxiety, you’ve got to give yourself some grace. There is no “perfect” solution to anything, and that’s especially true with anxiety. If you talk to someone and they see something that you don’t in a certain situation, you can’t beat yourself up and think you somehow “messed up”, and should’ve done something differently. Just remember it’s ok to “muddle your way forward,” as Boyes says. And don’t let your perceived “imperfection” stop you from opening up and getting other people’s perspectives.
3. Pausing your life while you “solve” your anxious situation
If you’ve got anxiety, you’ve been there: something triggers your anxiety and everything else has to come to a screeching halt while you obsess over how to “solve” the situation. And hey, that makes sense: our ancestors sensing a predator in the distance would definitely have to find a way to deal with that situation! But getting a message from a friend or boss that triggers you, not so much.
Putting every aspect of your life on hold won’t enhance your life. In fact, it will only serve to make the “problem” seem bigger and bigger. Continue to live your life, do what’s important to you, and most especially, engage in your relationships with others so you don’t lose sight of the support you have.
4. Beating yourself up for being wrong
It’s probably no secret to you that a lot of the things that trigger your anxiety are pretty much what Boyes calls “false alarms.”. No, your best friend is not about to start hating you, and your boss probably isn’t about to fire you. But when the anxiety subsides and you start to see things more clearly, it’s important that you don’t then start beating yourself up for worrying so much about things that might seem irrational now. As Boyes says, you should “Recognize that emotions just signal what we care about. Caring about being accepted, supported, and liked isn’t wrong, even if your fear didn’t eventuate.”
All of the above are easy traps to fall into, and of course don’t feel bad if you do fall into them! Speaking to a therapist can help you to find strategies that do work for you. But we do have one more thing to think about when it comes to anxiety: how we can look at it in a less negative way, as something to be “solved,” and live with it in a different way.
“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”
The above quote from psychologist Susan David refers to what some experts say is the final thing we’re getting wrong about anxiety: that it’s actually completely negative. Wait, what? Like we bluntly stated earlier: anxiety sucks, right? Sure, but life is messy and uncomfortable, and banishing all of that from our minds might be more like numbing ourselves than living life fully as ourselves.
In fact, professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who has written a book on the positive side of anxiety, believes “That anxiety can be an ally. But like any ally, you need to negotiate. And that’s the messy work of being human.”. Her theory is that, if we try to hurry up and put those anxious feelings aside and make it all go away, we’re actually missing out on something.
Says Dennis-Tiwary, “We’ve lost the acceptance that mental health does not equal the absence of emotional suffering or discomfort, that actually mental health is the engagement with emotional suffering and working through rather than around.” And “The emotion of anxiety is not broken; it’s how we cope with anxiety that’s broken.”
According to her, what we’re missing is that anxiety tells us about the things we care about, and about our goals for the future. And experts point out that feeling anxious actually releases dopamine. Which motivates us to pursue rewards and take action to reach those goals. Not only that, but anxiety “doesn’t just trigger fight-or-flight, it also increases oxytocin, the social bonding hormone. What you find is that especially with moderate levels of anxiety—not necessarily full-blown panic—you actually increase levels of oxytocin, which primes us to seek out social connection and support.”
And anxiety, in Dennis-Tiwary’s eyes, not only has actual physical benefits. But it’s also a way to exercise your emotions, like you might work a muscle or strengthen your immune system. As she says, “if you don’t work [your muscles] and strain them, they atrophy. Our emotions are the same way, too. There’s great evidence to believe that it’s only in engaging with these difficult feelings – learning the skills and coping and sometimes falling down and then knowing you can pick yourself back up again – that actually allows you to build the skills that then help you be resilient against all the curveballs that the world is going to throw your way.”
Hmm, that’s a lot to think about. Anxiety as a positive part of life? As Dennis-Tiwary acknowledges, “Anxiety feels bad”. But it might be easier to accept that it’s an important part of ourselves if we experience it as part of our full range of human emotion that we can’t simply wish away. But what do you think? Is life meant to be uncomfortable sometimes? Can anxiety be a motivating force that can help motivate you to improve your future? Or is it something to be “dealt with” as quickly and efficiently as possible?
Whatever your thoughts on anxiety, whether you think it’s an important part of you, something you want to work on banishing for good, or a force for your future. It’s important to find strategies that help make your present happy and fulfilling. The best way to do that is to find support and connection with others. If that includes therapy, go for it. Let us know your thoughts!
Co-written by Joanna Bowling