5 habits for coping with stress that are actually making your anxiety worse

Crystal Cox/Business InsiderScrolling through your phone can distract you momentarily from negative thoughts, but screen time can actually interfere with your sleep.
  • Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
  • If you struggle with anxiety, she says, you may find yourself looking for coping mechanisms that offer instant relief during moments of panic.
  • While it’s important to do something that makes you feel better, Morin explains that certain habits might actually make your anxiety harder to manage.
  • Morin says that mindless screen time, avoidance, and venting too often to friends and family can cause you to dwell on negativity and hold you back from working through real issues.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

From a racing heartbeat to excessive worrying, anxiety feels awful. It affects you physically, cognitively, and emotionally. The symptoms can make it difficult to function.

Courtesy of Amy MorinAmy Morin.

Sometimes you can pinpoint where the anxiety is coming from, like when you’re anxious about an upcoming root canal. At other times, you might feel anxious about everything – debt, relationships, work, and your health.

When your anxiety levels are high, you might feel desperate to do whatever it takes to feel better fast. But the things you reach for to get instant relief might actually be making your anxiety worse.

As a therapist, I see it happen all the time. People work really hard to help themselves feel better. But much of the time, their efforts aren’t just counterproductive – they’re downright harmful.

Here are five common mistakes that will make your anxiety worse, even though you may think they’re making you feel better:

1. Avoiding the things that make you feel anxious

On the surface, avoidance seems like a helpful response to anxiety. If you feel anxious about your financial situation, you might ignore your bills and avoid looking at your bank account. Avoiding the reality of your mounting debt and dwindling bank account will keep your anxiety at bay – at least temporarily. As your financial problems mount, however, your anxiety will grow.

Research backs up the fact that the more you avoid anxiety-provoking situations, the more anxiety-provoking they become. And avoidance causes you to lose confidence in your ability to face these fears.

So while avoidance might give you a quick moment of relief, the act of dodging problems worsens anxiety over time.

2. Scrolling through your phone before you go to sleep

Clients who come into my therapy office often say things like, “My mind just won’t shut off at night” or, “As soon as I try to go to sleep, my brain just reminds me of all the things I need to start worrying about.”

In an effort to drown out the noise in their heads, many of them scroll through their phones before they fall asleep. And while looking at social media for a few minutes might feel like it quiets their brain for a minute, staring at a screen actually interferes with sleep and leads to more anxiety.

In fact, just having a smartphone in the same room while you’re sleeping can increase your anxiety. A 2018 study published in “Computers in Human Behaviour” found that after just one week of not sleeping with a smartphone in the bedroom, individuals reported less anxiety, better quality sleep, and improved well-being.

So you might want to try it as an experiment of your own. For one week, leave your smartphone in the kitchen when you go to sleep. See if you feel better. A whopping 94% of participants in the study decided to continue leaving their phones in another room when they slept because they felt so much better.

3. Venting to your friends and family

When you’ve had a rough day, you might think you need to “get your feelings out.” So you may be eager to share with your family and friends all the things that went wrong. After all, you might erupt like a pressure cooker if you stuff your feelings, right?

Well, that’s actually a misconception. The more you talk about things that cause you distress, the more you keep yourself in a heightened state of arousal.

A 2013 study published in the “Cyberpyschology, Behaviour, and Social Networking” volume found that venting backfires – especially in people with perfectionist tendencies (which is common in individuals with anxiety disorders). The authors of the study say people are better off focusing on the positive aspects of their day. Recounting what went right, rather than dwelling on what went wrong, can boost mood and decrease anxiety.

4. Thinking about your problems

There’s a common misconception that the more you think about a problem, the more likely you are to develop a solution. So many anxious people sit around running zillions of “what if…” scenarios through their heads just to make sure they’re prepared.

But thinking longer and harder isn’t necessarily the best way to solve a problem. In fact, letting your brain work through a problem in the background could be a better option.

Researchers have found an “incubation period” might be the key to solving problems and making your best decisions. Studies show people make better decisions after they give their brains a break from dwelling on a problem.

So whether you’re worried about a specific issue or dwelling on an anxiety-provoking problem, distract yourself for a bit. Give the unconscious part of your brain an opportunity to work through the issue in the background.

5. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol

Reaching for drugs or alcohol at the end of a long day might seem like a helpful way to relax your anxious brain. But self-medicating usually backfires.

Despite the repercussions, self-medicating is a popular coping strategy. Studies suggest that almost 25% of individuals with anxiety disorders try to mask their symptoms with substances.

Using drugs and alcohol to cope with anxiety has been linked to a variety of adverse outcomes, ranging from higher levels of stress and dysfunction to lower quality of life and increased physical health problems.

So while substances might take the edge off for a minute, they contribute to longer-term problems. And these problems fuel anxiety, making it a cycle that can be difficult to break.

How to get help for anxiety

If you struggle with anxiety and have gotten caught up in habits that are making you feel worse, get professional help. Anxiety is one of the most treatable yet under-treated conditions out there.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective therapeutic strategy that could reduce your symptoms and help you break free from the unhelpful habits that are keeping you stuck. Medication may be an option as well. Talk to your physician or reach out to a mental health professional so you can break free from the habits that are keeping you stuck in a cycle of anxiety.

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