Help & Advice

How What You're Wearing Can Affect Your Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How What You're Wearing Can Affect Your Anxiety

You may take a lot of time with your appearance, hardly think about it, or passively let others tell you what you should wear. Depending on why you do these things, you may be dressing for stress. This article will discuss appearance-related anxiety, and provide ways to dress for success.

Are You Dressed for Stress?

Anxiety may not be caused by your clothes but what you wear does speak to your level of confidence. Your self-esteem can influence the choices you make about your attire, and your self-esteem is related to your anxiety.

With that in mind, what you wear (and why you wear it) can have a big impact on the amount of anxiety you have. Because of the power of first impressions, as well as how quickly visual information is processed, the way you present yourself to the world via your appearance will affect your relationships with others as well as how you view with yourself. The following are some of the ways that anxiety can be affected by your clothing.

Being Dressed By Others

Some people find themselves in abusive relationships with people who wish to control them via their physical appearance. It may be a new friend, a significant other, or even a parent. Warning signs to watch for and how these people (and clothing choices) can affect you are outlined below.

Controlling friends — People may enter your life who feel entitled to control you. If you find that a friend is constantly criticizing what you wear, or demanding that you look a certain way regardless of your preferences (rather than offering sensitive feedback when you ask for it, or respectfully explaining what about how you dress is bothering them and why), then they may be a person to avoid. A friend who causes stress by making you act in ways that are untrue to yourself and lower your self esteem is an unhealthy relationship.

Controlling Significant Other — A significant other who criticizes the way you dress or constantly demands that you dress up for them, or dress down for others, may be exhibiting abusive behavior. If you find yourself dressing to suit another person's idea of who you are or need to be in order to earn love or affection from them, you should consider (with support from friends, family and/or a counselor's support, or with a court order if need be) removing that person from your life. The more you give in to their demands (or allow yourself to be coerced and/or traumatized by them), the more prone you will be to controlling relationships in the future as well as to anxiety and panic attacks related to post-traumatic stress.

Controlling parent — Parents may wish to control their children's lives past the age when such control is appropriate due to overprotectiveness, or possibly unhappiness in their own lives. This may lead to hypercritical analysis of clothing choices or even attempts to dress you as they see fit, which can reduce your sense of control over you own life and lead to high stress, low self esteem, and depression.

Each of these circumstance could contribute to your anxiety.

I Don't Care Couture

Dressing thoughtlessly because you don't feel motivated to make an effort with your appearance, or because it causes you too much stress to decide what to wear, can have a negative impact on your relations with others. This can lead to feelings of rejection and paranoia, which can result in anxiety and panic attacks.

While there is not necessarily anything wrong with not caring what others think about your clothing, or with wanting to dress however you want, as with any choice, it does have a significant impact on your life. Your clothing choice must be appropriate for certain situations, for example, at work, or when attending a function, etc. Your clothing choices can also impact how others perceive you and interact with you. While you may not care about your attire, anxiety that you are experiencing could be related to situations in which your choice of clothing actually does matter.

Dressing Up Low Self Esteem

If you are someone with low self esteem, you may feel the need to dress a certain way to compensate for the ways in which you imagine that you don't measure up to others. This may mean you dress to fit in with a certain crowd even though you don't feel like one of them, dress to call attention to yourself because you don't feel like people would ever pay attention to you otherwise, or obsessively follow trends in order to impress people with your new or trendy clothing choices rather than with your thoughts or personality. These ways of dressing can lead to shallow connections with others based on superficial and perhaps dishonest statements that your clothes have made about you. This can keep you from forming strong emotional connections or having confidence in yourself, which may result in loneliness and stress.

Dressing Uncomfortably

It's true that some outfits that make you look nice are uncomfortable. But that perfect pair of 3-inch heels, too-small pair of jeans or old belt that doesn't really fit anymore may be contributing to your anxiety. Looking fashionable or dressing for convenience at the expense of your physical comfort should be avoided. After all, it's hard to feel good when your feet are screaming or your internal organs can't digest your food properly, and ultimately, it's pretty inconvenient. Dressing in spite of your body results in the idea that you are having to fight against yourself to look good, which can be very stressful.

If you are making any of these choices when dressing yourself, as necessary as it may seem to you due to external pressure, the media or your own beliefs about what looks good, you are setting yourself up for an increase in anxiety in your life.

How to Dress For Success

Some people seem to dress effortlessly and always look happy, healthy and confident. You may wonder how they manage to pull it off. You may have assumed that they have a surplus of money, a personal shopper or even a life coach. Fortunately, the secrets to their success are things that anyone can do, including you.

Most likely, those people are following one, several, or all of the tips below.

  • Dress For You and No-One Else - The unfortunate truth is that you should consider what looks good and what doesn't, because you want to be confident in your outfit. But that confidence should be based on what makes you feel good. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be considerate when you dress yourself (by, say, wearing pink to a funeral or house slippers to a job interview), but you should be consciously dressing to reflect the best of who you are (rather than letting others decide for you how you appear to the world). This will help you feel good about your own ability to make choices and assert yourself, keeping you from doubts about who you really are or whether people really know you.
  • Think About What You Wear - What you wear requires some planning. Putting together outfits in advance can help you avoid stress caused by having to decide at the last minute. Looking through magazines or on the internet can help give you an idea of what kinds of clothes you would feel good about wearing. Feeling put together and professional can give you a big boost of confidence and self-assurance that you maybe wouldn't expect. It also provides opportunities for people to give you compliments and treat you respectfully.
  • Show Off Your Positive Qualities - Don't hide behind who you think people want you to be, or who you think you have to be to be happy. If you dress in ways that reflect who you truly are, and don't obsess over whether you don't look good enough, people will actually be impressed by and drawn to your self-confidence, and maybe even be inspired by you.
  • Don't Hurt Yourself - Avoid clothes that pinch, pull, chafe, or otherwise hurt your body. If you are worried about looking good, you should first worry about feeling good in what you wear. If you are forced to dress uncomfortably no matter how you dress due to physical or health problems that make you uncomfortable, you should engage in physical therapy and exercise regularly (or find a personal trainer) to help you overcome those difficulties and dress in a way that makes you feel good.

Looking amazing doesn't have to make you unhappy, uncomfortable or stressed out. If your clothing choices lead to anxiety then review your fashion choices and make changes that will lead to a new, healthier you.

While your clothes may have a role in your anxiety, they are not the root cause of it. You still need to make sure that you're reducing your anxiety in general. Once you do, you'll be more likely to have confidence in what you choose to wear.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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