Are you making your anxiety worse?

I guess you are wondering what the title of this months blog is all about. You’re probably thinking, ‘of course I’m not making my anxiety worse, I hate feeling like this!’ I agree, anxiety is a horrible feeling and it’s natural to want to get rid of it however there may be times when we are unintentionally feeding the cycle of anxiety. Allow me to explain …

Anxiety is a natural physiological response which kicks in when we feel threatened by something, think of it as natures protection system. Our bodies respond in a number of different ways to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’ such as increased heart rate, breathing quicker, sweating and dilating our pupils. To some degree this burst of energy can be really helpful if we need to remove ourselves from a dangerous situation or power ourselves through a job interview or exam. However, if it’s too intense, frequent or happens at an embarrassing moment it is far from helpful and these physical sensations become a threat in themselves.

It’s natural to want to avoid these unpleasant feelings by avoiding the places where they tend to happen such as travelling on trains, giving presentations, or meeting new people. If we can’t avoid the situation completely then we may develop what we call ‘safety behaviours’ in an attempt to feel less anxious and prevent the thing we are worried about from happening. Safety behaviours might include things like gripping onto the shopping trolly in the supermarket because you’re worried you will collapse, or repeatedly checking you have locked your car because you’re worried someone might steal it.

Avoidance and safety behaviours make perfect sense as we are hard wired to want to feel comfortable and to reduce threat. However, the problem with avoiding things and using safety behaviours is that this stops us from learning that we can cope with difficult situations and that the things we are worried about may not come true after all. Over time avoidance and safety behaviours erode our confidence and resilience, leaving us feeling more anxious than ever.

What can I do instead?

Get a notebook and pen and take some time to consider the points below …

  • Identify the situations which are making you feel anxious.  
  • How are you are responding to these situations? Are you completely avoiding them or might you be relying on any safety behaviours?
  • Make a step by step plan for facing the situation without using any safety behaviours.
  • Carry out your plan and accept that it’s likely to feel uncomfortable in the short-term.
  • Notice what happened – What did you achieve? Is there an improvement in your confidence and resilience? If you encountered difficulties go back to your plan and consider making the steps smaller.
  • Keep practising – old habits die hard so keep going!

If making these changes on your own feels too difficult reach out and ask for help from a friend or family member.  You may also want to consider professional help from a therapist like myself, in which case drop me an email or read my blog on ‘Choosing a Therapist’.