Dealing with anxiety is intensely personal. And luckily, there are many ways of coping that you can do for free, and on your own. Unfortunately, when it comes to
treating your anxiety on your own, there are a lot of mistakes you can make. So paying attention to psychologists' suggestions on how to take care of yourself is important.
Self-treatment can be really positive, but it is not for everyone. "[Whether self-treatment is a good idea] depends on the level of anxiety you are experiencing," psychologist
Kelsey M. Latimer, PhD, CEDS-S, founder of Hello Goodlife, tells Bustle. Particularly for those with more serious anxiety, self-treatment can be risky. But even if you have high-functioning anxiety and think you know exactly what to do, you still may be making a few mistakes.
"There’s nothing wrong with trying to self-treat anxiety as long as you are doing it correctly and it’s working," psychotherapist, author, and blogger
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, tells Bustle. "[...] The problem with self-treatment, however, is that people often instinctively do the wrong the thing which only exacerbates anxiety. The key is to know what helps and what hurts." Luckily, psychologists are used to these kinds of issues, and are here to help.
Here are 14 surprising mistakes you may be making if you're trying to self-treat your anxiety, according to experts.
While it may be tempting, you should try not to push away your anxious feelings. Even though the symptoms are quite unpleasant, ignoring them or trying to resist them may only make them worse.
"It's the old adage of 'try not to think of a pink elephant,' trying to avoid anxiety can actually perpetuate it as you try to fight it," psychotherapist
Michelle Croyle, MA, tells Bustle. "Instead, simply tell yourself that you are feeling anxious and that you don't need to fight it but merely observe the feeling and focus on the fact that it will pass." With this technique, you may be able to focus on relaxing, rather than fearing your symptoms coming back.
While some people tend to try to push anxiety out of their way, others are inclined to fully succumb to it — but in less-than-healthy ways. Letting it take over, whether that means in thoughts or in actions, is still not quite the right way to go about self-treating.
"However anxiety looks and feels for you, it's a big mistake to just let it take over," anxiety coach and CBT therapist
Katherine Tate, tells Bustle. "You can take back control. And, maybe surprisingly, the best way to do that is to be still." Taking three deep breaths, or breathing into the place in your body where your anxiety tends to ball up, can help you self-treat in a more calming way.
Not Prioritizing Self-Care
While helping others can definitely be a positive, and may even
help your mental health, too much of a good thing can still be harmful. Focusing on others can become too much if you need to address your inner struggles.
"Too often, we rush into our day taking care of everyone else and all our obligations," Tate says. "But when you start each day for you, it's possible to cultivate a calm mindset that carries you throughout your day — whatever challenges arise."
Self-care is not a trend; it's an important mental health skill that you deserve to cultivate.
Assuming Professional Help Won't Work
Self-treatment is valid, but if it doesn't work, it's important not to jump to the conclusion that nothing else will work either.
"[Some people] assume that since self-help didn't work, then professional help won't work," Latimer says. "That is not true. Anxiety can be highly effectively treated by both psychological and psychiatric methods and the key is to catch it as quickly as possible so as to not reinforce the patterns of the anxiety." So even if it's daunting, it's worthwhile to seek professional treatment if you aren't able to manage your symptoms on your own.
Assuming That Medication Is A Sign Of Weakness
Needing help outside of self-treatment does not indicate any failure on your part whatsoever. If you are avoiding medication on principle, you may be denying yourself the symptom relief you are looking for.
"[Some people believe that] using medication is for 'weak people,'" Latimer says. "[...]
Using medications can be highly effective and necessary to turn around the biological aspects of the anxiety. It does not mean that you are weak, nor does it mean that you aren't working hard because you might take a medication to assist you." So if you've written off the chance that medicine may help your anxiety, that may be worth reconsidering.
Simply Avoiding The Things That Make You Anxious
If you've been self-treating with the idea that avoiding everything that makes you anxious will make your anxiety go away, you may only be putting a band aid on your symptoms.
"Anxiety strengthens when we avoid the things that make us anxious," Latimer says. "One of the most effective methods of treatment for anxiety is exposures to the things we are anxious about for that very reason. Avoiding anxiety-producing things will only strengthen the conditioning process in your mind!"
Exposure therapy is meant to be done with the help of a professional, so if you've been struggling with avoiding certain fears, it may be worthwhile to find a therapist.
Thinking A Single Thing Can Fix Your Anxiety
Usually, something as complicated as anxiety cannot be treated with a catch-all solution. So if you're self-treating by honing in on only one thing, you may be missing the bigger picture.
"[Some people make the mistake of] thinking changing or adding one thing and one thing only will fix their anxiety," licensed psychotherapist and lifestyle coach
Dr. Teralyn Sell, tells Bustle. "[...] You will most likely need to evaluate several facets of your life to understand what areas you will need to change rather than thinking only doing one thing different will change everything." So even though things like yoga, multivitamins, and meditation may help a bit, it's worth it to zoom out and treat your anxiety more holistically.
Not Knowing Your Anxiety Baseline
To properly treat your anxiety, you have to understand it. Because of this, it's important not to start jumping to conclusions about your improvement (or lack thereof) until you get to know your symptoms.
Dr. Sell calls this "knowing your anxiety baseline." "Similar to a pain scale, you should rate your anxiety on a scale of one to ten," Dr. Sell says. Without a rating, you may lose sight of how bad or good your anxiety is day to day. Once you keep track of your baseline, you may be more prepared to keep track of your improvement.
Unfortunately, like any kind of treatment for a health issue, self-treatment for anxiety still requires commitment. So if you've been inconsistent in the changes you're making, you may be tripping yourself up.
"Being inconsistent with lifestyle changes or abandoning changes too soon [is a mistake]," Dr. Sell says. "We live in a quick fix society and have trouble sticking with something if it doesn't yield immediate results." Dr. Sell recommends sticking with any changes for at least three months, and then evaluating. And if — at any point — you feel like you need extra help, then it's definitely worth a shot to contact a professional.
Trying To Control The Future
Anxiety thinks that it can predict the future. So if you're trying to treat your anxiety, it's important to remind yourself that you can't.
"Stop trying to control the future," Koenig says. "Anxiety is about trying to control things that we cannot control — other people, what will happen down the road, consequences of previous actions. Stay in the moment and you’ll often notice that most of the time, everything is fine." Going moment to moment can make things easier, and lower stakes.
Journaling (If It Isn't Making You Feel Better)
Journaling is often brought up as a way to help anxiety. But if journaling makes you feel worse, it's OK to admit that and stop doing it.
journal about anxiety if it reduces it," Koenig says. "Once more, when people journal about anxiety it often deepens it because they’re focusing on it. If you can journal and it helps you let anxiety go, great. If not, stop doing it." Not every treatment method that works for others has to work for you, and that's OK.
Talking about your feelings can be really positive. It can also be destructive if you aren't careful. Since not everyone knows how to respond, it can trick your brain back into the harmful patterns you were trying to avoid in the first place.
"When we express anxiety to others, they generally try to talk us out of it which perpetuates discussion and focus on it," Koenig says. "It keeps anxiety alive." Finding more mindful ways to deal with your anxiety, like
identifying negative self-talk and grounding your body with deep breathing, may be more helpful.
Thinking Exercise Alone Can Cure Anxiety
Like a lot of forms of self-treatment, exercise alone may be a mistake not because it doesn't help, but because it isn't a big-picture solution to a complicated problem.
"I've met lots of people who use exercise to 'control anxiety,'" licensed marriage and family therapist
Kristin Martinez, tells Bustle. "What they get is an increasing need for working out that works in the time they are exercising and the hours afterwards. Just like drugs, it wears off." Exercise can definitely help you feel better, but to treat anxiety it should be just part of a larger equation.
There are lots of ways to use mindfulness to help self-treat your anxiety. But if you are too focused on the end result of being "calm," you may not be helping yourself much.
"[...] striving for calm creates more tension," licensed psychotherapist
Diane Renz, tells Bustle. Too much stillness without active breathing or visualization may just wind you up more. It's important not to be trying to force yourself to calm down, but rather to work with your body to give it what it needs.
Distracting yourself can be quite comforting if you have anxiety. This technique, however, probably won't help you deal with your anxiety in full.
"[Distraction] is often recommended by self-help books and even by professionals,"
Anna Prudovski, psychologist, clinical director of Turning Point Psychological Services, tells Bustle. "And it does sometimes work in the short-term. Unfortunately, not only does it not work in the long term — it actually makes anxiety stronger. When an anxious person distracts [themselves] by watching Netflix, playing video games, or even talking to a friend, they subconsciously reinforce their belief that anxiety is dangerous and needs to be avoided." Learning about your anxiety, and exploring what causes it and what helps it abate, may be a more active way to treat the symptoms you're dealing with.
Whether in conjunction with therapy and psychiatry, or something you're doing on your own, self-treatment is only a good idea as long as it's helping you. Being more aware of the kind of messages you're telling yourself, and whether your coping mechanisms are having any long-term positive effects, may help guide you in the direction of what kind of help you really need. No one deserves to live with anxiety, and there are many ways to find help.