11 Ways To Help Anxiety That Can Actually Make It Worse, According To Experts
If you have anxiety, then you've likely come across all sorts of advice for ways to manage your symptoms. But did you know that even the most common mental health tips — the ones we've all heard a thousand times — can actually make anxiety worse? While they're often said in the most well-meaning way, not everyone realizes how their words can fuel anxiety, or that some coping techniques simply aren't right for everyone.
Since many tips and words of wisdom can do more harm than good, "there is reason to exercise caution in taking advice from others, unless they are a trained professional," Julianne Schroeder, MS, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in anxiety, tells Bustle. Even if it sounds like it should work, that doesn't mean it will. And that's OK.
"Everybody is unique and there are different triggers to anxiety based on your history," Schroeder says. "A good therapist or mental health professional will take this into account and also work with you to find different coping skills." There are plenty of ways to manage anxiety, and even though it may take some time to figure out the best ones, you can get there. In the meantime, read on for some advice you shouldn't necessarily take, according to experts.
1. "Ignore It"
If you're feeling anxious, well-meaning friends and family might pipe up and say that you need to ignore it or push through it. But suppressing emotions can certainly do more harm than good.
"We know that stuffing emotions is not only ineffective, it makes anxiety worse," Dr. Jamie Long, licensed clinical psychologist at The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale, tells Bustle. "Numerous research studies show us time and time again that hiding feelings leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings."
So instead of ignoring your anxiety, try "observing and describing the thoughts," Long says. "Then run a factcheck on these thoughts to check that the intensity actually fits the circumstances." This can be a much more effective way to reveal to yourself the reality of a situation.
2. "Just Stop Worrying"
Similarly, it's not uncommon for folks to suggest that you simply stop worrying. And yet, this advice can make you feel shamed for being worried in the first place, not to mention it can be very invalidating of your experiences, Dr. Rebecca Sinclair, a licensed psychologist and director of Psychological Services at Brooklyn Minds, tells Bustle.
In fact, "a person who tries hard not to worry may end up actually worrying more because of rebound effects," Sinclair says. Instead, try following your "what if" thoughts to their conclusion, and allowing yourself to feel your emotions.
3. "Take A Deep Breath"
Another common piece of advice for soothing anxiety is the classic "deep breath," which is meant to calm you down and help you feel present. And yet, if done incorrectly, it can have the opposite effect.
"Many people do this in a way that can exacerbate anxiety," Debbie Miller, ND, BCB, a naturopathic physician and biofeedback therapist, tells Bustle. "They take in a large amount of air very quickly, using their shoulders, neck, and upper ribs to help them inhale. Then, they exhale the air all at once."
A big gasp can make you feel more anxious as it perpetuates the stress response that's already occurring, Miller says. Instead, you'll want to "slow down the breathing, and extend the exhale," she says. "I encourage my patients to exhale as if they are breathing out through a tiny straw. This helps to rebalance blood chemistry and relax the nervous system."
4. "Just Do It"
"As much as it is important to address your fears, it is equally important to do so appropriately," Victoria Woodruff, a licensed social worker, tells Bustle. "Take for instance someone who is afraid of heights. A therapist would work to help teach them coping skills and, if using exposure therapy, would work to confront the fear."
They wouldn't necessarily recommend you face your fear head on, as this tip suggests. "You never start at the top of the Empire State Building," Woodruff says. "You'd more likely start a few feet above the ground. The last thing you want is to increase the stress in an already anxious situation, reinforcing the fear."
5. "If It Stresses You Out, Don't Do It"
That said, becoming avoidant and hiding because you're anxious isn't a good idea either. It's all about walking that middle line of facing your fears while not putting yourself into an extreme state of stress.
"Avoiding stressful situations reinforces that the anxiety is legitimate and the only appropriate response is avoidance," Woodruff says. "This can start as something simple, like avoiding a crowded park, and snowball into being unable to go to the grocery store, family events, the doctors office, etc."
This is where therapy can come in handy, as a professional counselor can help you figure out when and how to face your anxiety in an effective way.
6. "Try To Distract Yourself"
Ah, if only it were so easy. The truth of the matter is, while distraction can be helpful for some, anxiety tends to come along with other symptoms and acknowledging them is important, Paige Rechtman, LMHC, MEd, EdS, a licensed psychotherapist, tells Bustle.
"Anxiety is often a coverup for some of these deeper emotions that are trying to tell us something about our lives that isn't working," she says. "Ignoring them, or brushing them under the rug, causes them to fester and worsen over time. Moving through these other emotions, although unpleasant and uncomfortable, can allow you to gain deeper awareness and insight into your behavior, and the things that you may want to change about your life."
Meditation can be incredibly helpful for folks with anxiety, and adding it into your daily routine might have amazing benefits. But the reality is, meditation isn't effective for everyone, and thus isn't always the best advice.
In fact, "some people who do try it and don't like it may find themselves becoming more anxious, or even hopeless that nothing will ever work," Rechtman says. "If meditating works for you, great. If it doesn't, no problem. There are other things to try out that may be more effective for you."
8. "Tell Yourself It'll Be Fine!"
"Even though saying this to someone can seem like its encouraging, the person you say it to may actually feel unheard, invalidated, and alone in their experience," Rechtman says, which is why it's not something to take too personally.
As the receiver of this advice, it's fine to say that it isn't helpful. And remember that if you don't feel fine right now, that's OK.
"I find that when you start judging yourself for feeling anxious, and telling yourself that you shouldn't be, that is when it starts to get worse," Rechtman says. "If you feel anxious, try to observe what it is like and be curious about it — but do not shame yourself for the way you feel."
9. "Write It All Down"
"Journaling is another technique often suggested for anxiety that can be problematic without nuance," Jenny Weinar, LCSW, a body image therapist, tells Bustle. "For some people, a journal simply becomes a repository for their darkest thoughts, and the act of putting these on paper might be more stimulating than calming."
If you'd still like to give it a try, however, there are ways to journal that may feel right. "Specific journaling prompts derived from evidenced-based therapy models, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), can help provide some structure and containment for anxiety," she says.
10. "Let It All Out & Talk About It"
Everyone's different and for some, talking about anxiety can be a big help. But if you find that it only results in a "stuck" feeling, it may be doing more harm than good.
"Obviously as a talk therapist, I believe there is immense value in not being alone in your problems, yet sometimes anxious people can keep talking about an issue without taking action," Schroeder says. "Anxiety fuels avoidance, and a major part of the therapeutic work is to be able to take action and do the things that create anxiety (i.e. giving a presentation, approaching someone new)."
11. "What's The Worst That'll Happen?"
Another common tip, when it comes to dealing with anxiety, is to kick back and imagine the worst case scenario — usually as a way to show yourself it wouldn't be so bad.
But consider this: "It can be helpful to pinpoint your ultimate fear in a situation, but not unless it's followed with the idea of a specific plan of how you would cope and the belief that you can manage your worst fear happening," Schroeder says. "Often I see clients who struggle believing they will be able to manage the worst case scenario, and then it increases their anxiety."
If these tips work for you, that's great. But since they can be anxiety-inducing for some, you may want to chat with a therapist and hear their advice, which can be catered to you.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.