One of the reasons that anxiety is so hard to cure is because it's self-sustaining. Many people experience anxiety symptoms that cause them more anxiety, and many others find that their thoughts and feelings make them avoid things that would otherwise help improve the way they feel.
But the issue that most commonly affects those with anxiety is engaging in things that make anxiety worse. In this article, we'll explore countless anxiety mistakes that people make and show you what you can do to prevent them.
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Different Anxiety - Different Mistakes
Many things make your anxiety worse. Some of them are related to the disorder you have, and others are related to anxiety in general. The best thing you can do is get a better understanding of what causes your anxiety, what it's symptoms mean, and how to control it. Start my free 7-minute anxiety test to find out what kind of anxiety you may have, and how to treat it.
Below are some of the most common issues that lead to a worsening of a person's anxiety. Some of them are related to specific disorders, while others are broader and relate to all anxiety. They're certainly nowhere near a comprehensive list, but hopefully, they'll give you a better idea of the things that you do right now that make your anxiety worse, so you can stop them and find some relief of your anxiety symptoms.
Trying to Stop the Thoughts
While anxiety has a lot of physical symptoms, most people are intimately familiar with anxiety producing thoughts. These are thoughts and fears that you have that create more anxiety.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually characterized specifically by recurring thoughts that you can't seem to stop, but all forms of anxiety - including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and more, all seem to have negative and scary thoughts that no matter how much you try to push away they keep coming back.
The reason this happens is based on a psychological principle known as thought suppression. Thought suppression is a psychological phenomenon that states that when you try to avoid having a thought, you actually have the thought more often than if you never bothered trying to avoid it at all.
The reason this occurs is not entirely clear. Most likely it has something to do with one of the following:
- Memory Imagine you were stuck in a cave with a monster that told you if you tried to leave the cave the monster would eat you. This means that it's crucial to your survival that you remember not to leave the cave. It's possible that your brain is trained to try to make sure it remembers things that you wish you didn't know. It may work extremely hard to force you to keep things on your mind, no matter how much you don't want them, so it tries as hard as it can to make sure you don't forget.
- Stress There is some evidence that when you try to avoid thinking about something, you actually create mental stress that causes you to feel more negative. Those negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions can cause your brain to remember other thoughts that make you feel negative - such as the original thought that you tried to suppress in the first place.
- Brain Use The most likely reason is that trying to "not" think of something takes a great deal of mental energy. This sentence is going to sound confusing, but in a way, you have to think about not thinking about something. You have to keep it in your mind to try not to think about something, and when you do you think about it more.
Researchers validated this by separating people into two groups. One group, they told to think about a pink rabbit and click a button every time they think about it. One group was told not to think about a pink rabbit and to click a button every time they do think about a pink rabbit.
The group that was told not to think about the rabbit clicked the button more, probably because when they were not thinking about the rabbit their brain said: "hey, don't forget you are not supposed to think about the rabbit" which, in turn, caused them to think about it. Those that were allowed to think about it all they want didn't need that reminder since it simply didn't matter.
It's for these reasons that trying to fight your thoughts is counterproductive to your ability to stop anxiety. Accept that you have anxiety and be okay with any negative thoughts and you may have the thoughts less frequently.
Validating Your Fears
One of the greatest mistakes people make is trying to validate their fears. This is especially common with those that have anxiety over their health. The person may know they have anxiety, but they'll still Google the physical symptoms they're experiencing to try to convince themselves that it's not anxiety, but instead a rare and diagnosed disease.
This type of behavior happens all the time in life. You'll worry that your son or daughter is going to get into a car accident and look up death rates for car accidents. You'll be afraid of spiders and read stories about how people are killed by spiders.
People don't like to feel as though their anxieties are irrational, so they research and talk to friends and look for reasons to feel as though they are rational. Unfortunately, this behavior only causes more anxiety, and may make it harder to cure.
Avoiding Anxiety Stimuli
When you know for a fact that some thing or situation makes you anxious, another thing that makes anxiety worse is purposefully avoiding it.
Human beings are still animals, and animals are prone to a behavioral principle known as "negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is when your brain reinforces something it learns or believes because something was taken away.
For example, let's say you have a fear of something generally not dangerous, like birds. You see a bird in front of you on the sidewalk, so you get anxious. You then walk the other way to avoid the bird and the anxiety goes away.
By taking away the bird (by avoiding it), your anxiety went away. So your brain then reinforces the idea that a bird is something you need to fear, and you actually become more afraid of the bird in the future.
All types of anxiety can suffer from negative reinforcement. Panic disorder can lead to agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors) because people avoid locations where they've had a panic attack.
Studies have shown that you can decrease your anxiety if you allow yourself to be afraid without trying to avoid it. That can be very hard for people, but letting yourself be in a place that gives you panic attacks, or letting yourself stay near a bird without running away, etc., can all have a positive effect on your anxiety.
Spending Time With Negative People
Human beings are social creatures, and as social creatures, we tend to pick up on the behaviors of others. So when you're someone that really needs to feel happier and stress-free, one of the worst things you can do is spend time with people that bring stress and tension into your life.
If you spend a lot of your free time with negative people or people that want to create stress around them, that stress is often going to rub off on you. Ideally, spending time with happier people that bring positivity into your life is the best way to make an impact of your mental health.
Hyperventilating and Breathing Deeper
Often there are specific anxiety symptoms which, if you respond the wrong way, can also create more anxiety. There is perhaps no better example with this than hyperventilation.
Now, hyperventilation doesn't affect everyone with anxiety, but it does serve as evidence that anxiety can make symptoms that cause more anxiety.
Hyperventilation is when your body breaths too fast and expels too much carbon dioxide. Hyperventilation translates to "over breathing" and it's called that because the body is taking in too much oxygen and removing too much CO2. Your body actually needs carbon dioxide, and so when you breathe out too fast your body expels it without making more.
Hyperventilation is common with panic disorder, and it causes many symptoms that contribute to the development of panic attacks, including:
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Tingling limbs
- Shortness of breath
It's that last symptom that represents the real problem. Hyperventilation causes you to feel as though you're not getting a full breath. So people try to compensate either by breathing faster or trying to breathe deeper without slowing their breathing for long enough to regain some of that carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, this makes hyperventilation worse and can lead to a panic attack.
Holding your breath doesn't help much, but slowing down your breathing dramatically and fighting the urge to breathe too deeply does.
Other symptoms of anxiety fall under this same idea as well. For example, people generally respond to muscle aches from anxiety by sitting awkwardly, thus causing more muscle aches and more anxiety. Or they respond to indigestion by changing their diet, which may in some cases result in more indigestion. How you react to your anxiety plays a role in future anxiety symptoms, and avoiding any reinforcing behaviors is important to keep your anxiety at bay.
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Everyone talks about the importance of exercise for living longer and staying fit. But perhaps the greatest reason to exercise is that science has shown that a lack of exercise can cause anxiety, and exercise can cure it.
Unfortunately, anxiety can make you fatigued and cause you an overall lack of interest in exercise - often even more than you were previously. Since exercise is a crucial part of controlling anxiety and inactivity often leads to the development of further anxiety, this is clearly a big mistake.
Exercise should be the first thing you do to fight your anxiety, no matter how little you exercised in the past.
Sleeping with anxiety can be hard. Stress often keeps you awake, and while there are strategies to get sleep (such as writing out your thoughts in a journal), there are times when you simply may not be able to help your insomnia. It happens.
But many people with anxiety avoid sleep on purpose, and that's a big mistake. Sleep debt makes it much harder to control anxiety, makes anxiety symptoms worse, and can cause you to experience physical and mental issues that may increase anxiety in the future.
So you should make sure that you're doing everything you can to get a full night's sleep, and never purposefully trying to stay up simply so that you don't have to go to bed.
Poor Diet/Unhealthy Living
Diet and generally unhealthy living don't have a huge effect on anxiety, but they still affect it in smaller ways. Your diet surprisingly doesn't seem to affect anxiety much, but it can affect certain symptoms which in turn can lead to more anxiety.
For example, if chest pains give you anxiety, and you're eating foods that lead to indigestion, your diet may be affecting your anxiety levels. Furthermore, if you're experiencing fatigue from anxiety and you eat poorly, your body may become more fatigued than if you eat healthy.
Healthy living, in general, is simply important. From diet to exercise and beyond, it's necessary to make sure that you are actively taking the time to take care of yourself. If nothing else, the happier you are with yourself the better you'll feel about your life.
Unhealthy Coping Behaviors (Drinking, Drugs, Etc.)
Unhealthy coping behaviors are a bigger problem, and affect more than simply healthy living. Yes, alcohol and drugs are bad for your health, and certainly can create anxiety on their own. But the biggest issue with these coping behaviors isn't how unhealthy they are - it's how they can actually make it harder for you to cure your anxiety.
When you use drugs and unhealthy coping behaviors (like gambling) to control your anxiety, what you're doing is you're giving yourself a psychological crutch. Your brain essentially stops trying to help you cope with stress on its own, and instead lets the drug cope with stress for you.
Eventually, you actually lose out on even more of your own ability to cope with stress without the drinking or drugs, and your anxiety gets worse.
It's like if you had a machine that walked your legs for you so that you didn't have to use your muscles. Over time, your muscles would shrivel away, and you would eventually require the machine to walk. That's how these drugs and drinking affect your anxiety. Your ability to cope without them shrivels away, and it takes a lot more work to get it back.
This is one of the reasons that even medications made for anxiety should be partnered with other, non-drug ways to cope. Otherwise, you may depend on the medications too much, and struggle to cure your stress and anxiety without them.
Moping and Wanting to Be Alone
Have you ever had a stressful day at work or school and thought to yourself "I want to be alone today?" Anxiety creates that feeling, and unfortunately, it's actually the enemy of recovery.
One of the secrets to curing anxiety is staying busy and active. The more you can keep your mind off your anxious thoughts, the easier it will be for you to cope.
But when you're alone, these distractions aren't there. You're not engaging in fun activities that take your mind off your problems, or talking with friends that make you feel good. Instead, you're alone with your thoughts.
Remember, anxiety controls you on a chemical level. It changes your thoughts to be worse. So when you're alone with your thoughts, they tend to simply run wild. Even if you feel like that alone time is helping, there may be subconscious thoughts that are given time to grow, or negative emotions that start to take over.
Spending time with friends, staying busy with fun activities, and trying to bring as much enrichment into your life as possible is actually a genuinely effective way to control stress and rebuild your natural coping ability. Spending a lot of time alone in your room because you had a bad day may make anxiety worse.
Adding Anxiety Into Your Life on Purpose
Anxiety is also a cumulative problem. The more you experience, the more anxious you feel, even if those experiences are unrelated.
So it's damaging to your anxiety, then, if you do things that cause stress on purpose, even if they don't seem related. For example, walking down dark alleys at night or watching horror movies and dramas on TV. These activities may be fun, but they also stimulate anxiety, and unfortunately when you allow yourself to be subjected to that type of anxiety you tend to experience more anxiety later in other areas of your life.
It's not just anxiety either. It's all negative emotions. Some people like to listen to sad music when they're stressed, but often that simply causes the emotion to be worse since music tends to inspire emotions. Listening to happy and upbeat music, on the other hand, inspires happier emotions.
So make sure that you're avoiding activities that create more anxiety. There is simply very little benefit from purposely adding anxiety and negative emotions into your life.
Avoiding Anxiety Fueling Activities
These are just some of the activities that fuel anxiety. Making sure you avoid these mistakes will go a long way towards reducing your anxiety overall.
You should also take my free 7-minute anxiety test now. This test will help you learn more about your anxiety and give you treatment recommendations that are very effective.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 06, 2018.