Anxiety is a normal human experience. In fact, it is an adaptive response to life stressors. Anxiety can motivate us to complete important tasks and may alert us to danger in our environment. However, when someone’s anxiety becomes excessive and is beginning to impede their functioning, they could be struggling with an anxiety disorder.
The following are three things that keep people trapped in their anxiety disorders, and tips for how you can begin to break free.
Trap #1: Avoiding situations, events, or people that trigger your anxiety.
From the time that we were children, we are given the message that it is important to try to avoid painful and unpleasant feelings. For instance, adults often comfort children by stating, “Don’t cry. Everything is going to be ok.” The implicit message in this statement is that crying is a “bad” thing, which should be avoided.
For individuals who are struggling with anxiety disorders, often the primary impulse is to try to avoid feeling anxious. For instance, someone with social anxiety or PTSD may start to avoid situations, such as parties or family gatherings. Ultimately, this comes from a place of self-love because they are attempting to feel better by staying away from situations, which trigger their anxiety.
However, avoidance behavior is often what causes one’s anxiety to become even more crippling. When you avoid something that causes you to feel anxious, you will likely experience a sense of relief and your anxiety will go down in the short-term, reinforcing that in order to feel better you must stay away from the anxiety-provoking stimulus. In reality, this only heightens your sense of anxiety surrounding that stimulus over the long run.
Suggestion #1: Ultimately, if you are able to expose yourself to the anxiety-provoking stimulus with enough frequency, over time you can actually reduce your anxiety response through what is called exposure therapy. If you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, I would recommend seeking a therapist who specializes in this kind of therapy. Facing your fears with the support of a professional enables you to begin to break free from your anxiety disorder’s control and reclaim your life.
Trap #2: Engaging in behaviors that numb your feelings of anxiety.
Often people turn to behaviors such as drinking, using drugs, self-harming such as hair-pulling, binging, purging, and starving, in an attempt to numb themselves from their feelings of anxiety. People use these coping strategies because they temporarily give them relief from their anxiety. However, engaging in these behaviors can cause you to become dependent on them, may lead to a co-occurring mental health diagnosis, and create even more problems than when you started.
Another important consideration is that as human beings, we are unable to selectively numb emotions. So when we numb ourselves from feeling anxious and depressed, we also block ourselves from feeling happiness and joy. And we all want to feel positive emotions we just need to learn how to manage and move through the bad.
Suggestion #2: Instead of trying to escape your anxious thoughts and feelings, I would encourage you to be curious about them. Try to observe and pay attention to things that trigger your anxiety, and let them move through you. You could even keep a log of your triggers and rate your feelings of anxiety from day to day. Mindfully observing your anxious thoughts helps you distance yourself from them, and subsequently change your behavioral responses.
Trap #3: Criticizing yourself for feeling anxious.
Often, I have seen people who are struggling with anxiety disorders beat themselves up for feeling anxious. Berating yourself for experiencing anxiety will only cause you to feel worse than you already do. Who needs that?!
Suggestion #3: Rather than criticizing yourself, try to practice self-compassion. The times when you are struggling are often when you need to practice self-compassion the most. Think about the way that you would talk to a good friend who was struggling with anxiety, and then apply these same statements to yourself. In addition, engage in some compassionate self-care activities, such as taking a warm bath, making your favorite meal, reading an enjoyable book, or going to get a massage.
If you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, know that you are certainly not alone. It is a sign of strength to reach out and seek help. Further, it is entirely possible to lead a successful and happy life with an anxiety disorder. Kristie Lowell, a world champion gymnast, emphasized this best when she stated:
“After World Championships a young athlete wrote me: “You are my idol because you cry every day and you keep trying … you are my hero.” This letter changed my life. I stopped being ashamed of being one of the millions of people who suffer from anxiety. I started embracing it and using it to help athletes at my gym. I have learned that no one chooses to have anxiety. Instead of isolating athletes that have been labeled “mental cases,” I choose to stand by them and tell them they can do it, too.” (1)
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW, is a licensed mental health therapist with expertise in working with adolescents, trauma survivors, and those struggling with mood disorders. She holds a master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Maryland and a bachelor's degree in public communication from American University. Jennifer's experience spans outpatient mental health clinics, group homes, and a sexual assault crisis hotline. An acclaimed blogger, her articles on mental health, body image, and wellness have been published on various platforms, including the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and PsychCentral.com.