The Worst Advice for Alleviating Anxiety—And What Actually Helps
Anxiety is a common emotion. Everyone experiences it. Which is why everyone assumes they know how to deal with it. Which means that when someone is struggling with anxiety—excessive anxiety or worries that won’t go away—they may get an assortment of advice.
But this advice may not be helpful. In fact, it might even amplify their anxiety.
We asked clinicians who specialize in anxiety to share the worst kinds of advice for anxiety—which you’ll find below, along with what actually does help.
Look on the bright side. When you’re anxious and riddled with worries, well-meaning friends and family may suggest you refocus on the positives. They might say statements like, “You are so negative. Why don’t you count all the good things in your life?” said Deb Owens, LPC, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Philadelphia.
They might give “at least” responses, she said. That is, you say, “I’m really worried about job security.” The other person replies: “At least you have a job.” You say, “I’m really anxious about my loved one’s health. The other person replies: “At least you have a relationship.”
Focusing on the bright side doesn’t address or acknowledge the anxiety. Plus, like other emotions, anxiety has three components: thoughts; feelings/physiological arousal; and behavior, said Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, a psychologist with a private practice in Louisville, K.Y. “[M]erely thinking positively is not sufficient in many cases due to the anxiety often been triggered as a warning of future threat.”
A better approach is to practice acceptance. Because anxiety thrives when we try to exert control, when we try to resist it, when we try to fight it.
Accepting your anxious thoughts helps to loosen their grip, Owens said. For instance, you might say to yourself: Now I’m feeling anxious about that presentation. Really anxious. And that’s OK.”
Many people also think they shouldn’t feel any anxiety (they also start seeing anxiety as an adversary they want to vanquish). But anxiety can be a helpful messenger and motivator. For instance, your anxiety might be telling you to study for your big exam, or to practice for your job interview. Shifting your focus to studying or practicing is more helpful than trying to do everything you can to reduce your anxiety (e.g., by thinking positively).
“Recognizing that my anxiety is ‘normal’ and trying to prepare me for the threat versus ‘not being anxious’ will decrease the arousal while allowing one to focus more on the task rather than their own distress,” Chapman said.
(Of course, sometimes, you’ve done all the studying and practicing you can, and you still feel anxious. That’s when you can engage in breathing techniques and remind yourself, “This is temporary” and “I’m uncomfortable but I can tolerate this,” he said.)
Calm down. This is common advice that people give when someone is experiencing a panic attack, said Kristen Jacobsen, LCPC, a psychotherapist and owner of Cathartic Space Counseling in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill. “Most people don’t know how to appropriately respond in these situations—not their fault—so they think saying this is helpful.” Of course, calming down is exactly what someone going through a panic attack wants to do. But if they could calm down, they would, she said.
A more helpful response is to ask the person to breathe deeply with you, making the exhales longer than the inhales, Jacobsen said. Also helpful is to ask the person to focus on one of their senses, she said. What do they hear right now? What do they see? What do they smell?
Don’t be so sensitive. One of Jacobsen’s clients was devastated about a remark her mom made about her outfit. Which isn’t uncommon for people with anxiety. As Jacobsen said, “To someone with anxiety, a seemingly insignificant comment carries a lot more weight due to their already negativistic thinking style.”
Plus, “they live with guilt and pain over unresolved situations and misunderstandings because they don’t want to hurt other people and care too much.”
Simply telling someone to “stop being so sensitive” is unhelpful (and actually insensitive) because the emotions are real to them.
Instead, Jacobsen recommended saying: “Help me understand how you’re feeling” or “I’m concerned my response may have been misinterpreted; can you help me understand what you heard me say?”
Don’t think about it. This advice assumes that people actually have control over what they worry about and are choosing to be distressed. And it speaks to what’s so hard about anxiety, Chapman said: “The more I attempt to not think about anxiety-provoking situations, the more I think about anxiety-provoking situations, which creates more anxiety.”
Again, “Control as a strategy for anxiety is ineffective,” Owens said.
Instead of trying to control your thoughts, what’s more helpful is to confront your fears through exposure, Chapman said. (More on that below.)
Just face your fears. Just go for it. As mentioned above, exposing yourself to your fears is an effective way to alleviate your anxiety. But what’s not recommended is to confront a distressing situation all at once, Chapman said.
That is, if you’re petrified of public speaking, it’s not helpful to book a talk in front of 500 people. It is helpful to start speaking to smaller audiences—like a handful of people—and then gradually increasing the number—to 30, 100, 300 people.
We don’t need to dive into the deep end to learn to swim. We can start in shallow waters and build our swimming skills as we make our way to the other side.
“[G]radually confronting anxiety-provoking situations leads to an increase in self-confidence and provides corrective learning opportunities—learning that one can tolerate feeling uncomfortable and that anxiety does diminish,” Chapman said.
Anxiety is a universal emotion and experience. Because it’s so close to home for everyone, people assume they understand how it functions and what helps. But excessive anxiety—and excessive worry—only expands and balloons when you’re trying to control or avoid it. Which is why the best approaches involve acceptance and exposure—all practices that an anxiety specialist can help with.
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