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When it comes to managing anxiety, a lot of what people instinctively do can make the problem worse rather than better.
Here are some of the most common mistakes.
1. You believe you can think your way out of it.
Smart people are accustomed to being able to think their way out of any situation. However, when you’re very anxious, sometimes your thinking about the topic of your anxiety becomes so cloudy that, no matter how intelligent you are, trying to think your way out ends up leaving you feeling more confused than ever.
If you start to feel like you can no longer trust your thinking (especially if you usually rely on your smarts), you’re likely to become even more fearful.
Instead: 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. You try to find a perfect way to move forward.
Whenever I’m really anxious, when I eventually talk it through with someone, it often reveals falls in my thinking that I then feel embarrassed about having had. This feels very imperfect. I think, “I should’ve been able to think in a perfectly clear, all-seeing way about this. I shouldn’t have needed anyone else’s perspective. I should’ve been able to see that for myself.”
Instead: Recognize that it’s ok to muddle your way forward. It’s not realistic to think you won’t have thinking biases and blind spots.
3. You think you need to pause every other aspect of life until you’ve solved whatever is making you anxious.
Anxiety grips us. It makes us feel a sense of urgency and like we can’t take our eye off the problem. If you see anxiety from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that anxiety would have this effect on our thinking and behavior. If what you’re worried about is a predator you can see in the distance, then this makes a lot of sense. In other scenarios, it doesn’t make sense.
If you allow yourself to be consumed by the source of your anxiety, it will take up a larger slice of your life. When solving the problem that’s making you anxious becomes all-consuming in this way, the problem itself will seem larger and larger.
Instead: Continue to live your life, do what you value, and invest in your relationships. This will help keep the problem making you anxious in perspective, keep you in touch with your supports, and help you feel like a competent and useful human.
4. You criticize yourself for overreacting if your anxiety turns out to be a “false alarm.”
Anxiety is sometimes the result of a misperception. For example, you think someone is angry at you or will reject or abandon you, but they aren’t and don’t. Because you “got it wrong,” you feel foolish.
Instead: 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.
5. You think your life would be better if you had fewer anxious feelings.
Anxiety itself doesn’t need to limit your life. A version of you that’s less anxious would not be more perfect. In a literal sense, nothing is stopping you from pursuing all your wish to pursue with your anxious feelings.
Instead: Psychologist Susan David has a quote, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” The more you recognize this, the less it will feel like you need to escape your anxiety to have a life filled with purpose, achievement, love, diverse emotions, touching relationships, wonder and awe-inspiring experiences, and anything else you desire.