In my previous post I talked about how anxiety can be such an overwhelming experience. So many of my clients had tried to “get rid” of their anxiety but continued to struggle. One of the reasons it is so hard to overcome problematic anxiety is because the very strategies we use to cope with anxiety actually feed the anxiety and make it worse over time.
Below I list some common strategies that people use when faced with problematic anxiety:
Coping strategy #1:
Probably the most common strategy is avoidance.
We just try to avoid what is making us feel anxious. Anxiety feels terrible so it makes sense, on some level, that we would try to avoid the situations that make us feel anxious. Why would we want to subject ourselves to feeling so overwhelmed? The problem is that although we may get a short reprieve from feeling anxious, we never actually get over the fear, so anxiety just hangs around and gets more intense over time. Avoidance can take many forms.
Avoidance maintains and intensifies anxiety. The opposite of avoidance is directly facing your fears. This is what I encourage clients to do. We use a very gradual, collaborative approach. We work together to first build up coping resources so that you are more confident in being able to tolerate anxiety symptoms. Then slowly, but surely, we tackle the very things and situations that trigger your anxiety, thereby loosening anxiety's hold on you.
Coping strategy #2:
Another common strategy is excessive reassurance seeking.
Problematic anxiety can trigger self-doubt and low confidence. Anxiety can make it very difficult to make decisions because it over-emphasizes risk. What if you make the wrong decision? What if your choice results in failure, disappointment, catastrophe? Even simple choices seem impossibly complicated and overwhelming.
Of course, seeking out support from trusted people is helpful. But excessive reassurance seeking is different. It is asking friends or family members constantly about the things you are worried about. Getting others’ advice, encouragement, and confirmation feels good and can decrease worry in the moment. It can make you feel temporarily more confident. This can allow you to make decisions and get things done.
However, new situations and choices will pop up and more decisions will need to be made. And then the worry and anxiety will come back with a vengeance. This feels awful, so then more reassurance is needed to relieve that anxious, awful feeling. This sets up a cycle of relying on others’ feedback and reassurance to feel ok. Not only does this not get rid of anxiety but this process further erodes self-confidence and it can have a negative impact on relationships over time.
When I work with clients in counselling, we focus on increasing confidence to make choices, even in the face of some uncertainty. We distinguish between helpful support from family and friends and dynamics such as reassurance seeking that really only enable anxiety to thrive.
Coping strategy #3:
Rumination. This is thinking about different aspects of a situation or an issue over and over again.
But instead of this process resulting in actual problem solving and a positive outcome, rumination just makes us feel stuck. We keep turning over in our mind all the negative aspects of the situation.
Rumination stems from a very common belief that when you are faced with a problem, the best thing to do is to think about that problem and analyze the problem until you find a solution. Seems to make total sense, right? But when you are anxious, particularly if you are in a state of high arousal, thinking through the problem can actually make you feel worse. In this anxious state, you do not have access to all the potential options available to you. Anxiety gives you tunnel vision. All you can think about is the negative, scary stuff.
I often encourage my clients to first calm the body and then turn to addressing worry. There are effective ways to “think through” a problem but rumination is definitely not one of them. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offers effective strategies to look at and analyze your own thinking and worries so that anxiety can actually be addressed appropriately.
These coping strategies are pretty common responses to problematic anxiety. Again, I really believe that we are all just trying to cope the best we can in the moment. But there are better ways to tackle anxiety! Please reach out if you'd like help to change how you are coping with your anxiety.