Anxiety is the faulty activation of your fight or flight system at times when there is no fear causing stimuli present. When anxiety hits, it automatically changes "behaviors" in the sense that it prepares your body to fight or run away by increasing your heart rate, causing sweating, etc.
But anxiety can also change the way you act on a day to day basis, both when you have anxiety and when you don't. In this article, we'll explore some of the common and unusual behavioral changes that occur as a result of anxiety.
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Your behaviors are mostly under your control, but anxiety can make it extremely hard to control habits and behavioral desires. Our free 7 minute anxiety test can score your anxiety severity, compare it to others, and understand more about these behaviors.
Behaviors and Anxiety
Behaviors are actually a significant part of most anxiety disorders, because by definition anxiety needs to change your behavior in some way to qualify as an anxiety disorder. Get a more accurate picture of your anxiety with my free 7 minute anxiety test now.
For example, you cannot quality for a phobia if you don't show fear at the site of your phobic stimulus. You can't qualify for panic disorder if you don't have panic attacks, which are a behavioral reaction. All of these are examples of ways that anxiety affects behavior.
But in this case, we're talking about very specific types of changes to behavior that result from anxiety, and there are many. The following are just a few of the ways anxiety can affect behavior.
Perhaps the most common behavior is what some like to call "moping behavior." It is this need or desire to be alone with your own thoughts and try to "deal with your anxiety" without the help of others and without engaging in fun life activities.
When you have anxiety, this feels like it makes sense. You feel fatigue from your stress and you just want to be alone to get better. But when it comes to anxiety, this is actually the last thing you want to do. Time spent alone without activity is time spent lost in your own thoughts, and with an anxiety disorder, your own thoughts are your enemy.
Similarly, some anxiety disorders can cause a person to develop agoraphobia, which is technically the fear of being unable to escape, but usually refers to someone that refuses to leave their own and a few very select environments (like work).
Agoraphobia is caused primarily from panic disorder, and it occurs because the person starts to associate various locations with panic attacks, until eventually so many places are associated with panic attacks that they simply refuse to go out at all. Agoraphobia is a terrible disorder, and absolutely a behavioral one, despite the broad range of ways that someone can be agoraphobic.
The strangest behaviors caused by anxiety are most likely compulsions. Compulsions affect those with obsessive compulsive disorder, and they're behaviors that a person does compulsively to rid themselves of their negative, anxiety producing thoughts.
Compulsive behaviors can refer to anything. Sometimes they relate directly to the fear/obsession. For example, a fear of germs may have someone compulsively wash their hands. Sometimes they relate to a need for order, and a person will compulsively place objects or items in a specific order or pattern. But in some cases these disorders may not have any relationship to the fear at all, or may be only slightly related. For example:
- Skipping cracks in the ground because you are afraid of your mother getting hurt.
- Closing a door three times before leaving.
- Turning a switch on and off 5 times and having to start over if you are interrupted.
These compulsions are generally created because they provide some type of relief for the person with the negative, anxiety producing thought. It is not clear what causes these thoughts or why certain behaviors reduce them - in some cases it can even be coincidental, such as one day you realized when you walked through a door backwards your anxious thought went away.
But no matter what these compulsions can make a person feel unusual, and do result in behaviors that are seen as "different" by the norm.
False Coping Tools
Those with anxiety may also develop false coping tools, like alcohol abuse. Those types of behaviors are designed to help you cope with anxiety, because they essentially dull the anxiety so that it is unable to bother you as much. It is hard to feel anxiety when you are on drugs or alcohol.
But they're considered false coping tools because they can actually make anxiety worse, and often cause anxiety themselves. Alcohol use can cause anxiety the next day as a result of body stress and dehydration. In addition, the ability to cope with anxiety is a type of "use it or lose it" system. The more you use alcohol to cope with anxiety, the more alcohol becomes your only coping strategy and the one your body needs when it feels stress.
These types of false coping strategies are common, and not limited to drugs or alcohol. Any strategy that is unhealthy psychologically or physically that is used to dull anxiety is a behavior that will cause significant issues with coping in the future.
Some people also develop nervous tics when they're anxious. Examples include shaking your leg up and down, touching your face, winking or blinking and more. Some of them may also be habits, like picking your nails or clearing your throat - habits are slightly different than tics because they're a bit more under your own control, but they're otherwise automatic when you feel stressed.
Nervous tics are a medical mystery. No one is sure why they develop or why they affect some people but not others or what exactly causes them and why they occur, but nervous tics and habits are still very common in those with anxiety disorders.
The Behaviors of Anxiety
It is also important to remember that physical behaviors are not the only types of behaviors. Thought behaviors are extremely common with anxiety, including things like:
- Negative self-talk (ie "I am going crazy" or "I am going to embarrass myself.")
- Feeling as though you are going crazy.
- Convincing yourself something is wrong with you.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Changes in posture or activity as a result of anxiety.
All of these are still technically behaviors. In a way, anxiety itself is a behavioral issue. It is the activation of the fight or flight response when no fear is present, and upon activation it is not uncommon to find many different types of unusual behaviors and symptoms that arise as a result.
That's why the only way to really stop these behaviors is to take steps to control, manage, and cure your anxiety.
I've worked with thousands of people suffering from unusual and scary anxiety behaviors, and I start them all off with my free 7 minute anxiety test. The test is fast, it is easy, and it will give you a snapshot of your anxiety and coping tools to manage it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.