We all get anxious from time to time. But living with chronic anxiety is another thing entirely…
- Constantly worrying about the future and imagining the worst
- Never being fully present in conversations because you’re always worried about what the other person is thinking of you
- Feeling tense, on-edge, and exhausted all the time
- Dreading that your next panic attack is just around the corner
- Constantly second-guessing yourself, seemingly unable to make even small decisions confidently
While there are obviously many things that lead us to feel anxious, here’s the key insight most people miss:
Whatever caused your anxiety in the past, it’s your habits in the present that are maintaining it.
If you can learn to identify these anxiety-producing habits in your life, you can work to undo them and eventually free yourself from constant worry and chronic anxiety.
1. Avoiding uncertainty
It’s human nature to want to avoid feeling uncertain. When you first show up to a dinner party, for example, you quickly scan the room for someone you know, then gravitate toward them.
Of course, there’s a good reason for this: Our ancestors who were better at minimizing uncertainty probably survived longer than the ones who weren’t afraid of it (Come on, Crag, it’s just a dark cave that smells like Saber-Tooth Tiger… What could go wrong?)
We’re wired by evolution to prefer the familiar and safe to the uncertain and potentially dangerous.
But even in modern life, it’s often good to minimize or avoid uncertainty:
- Not sure if your upcoming presentation is going to be received well? Practice in front of a few friends and get feedback on the parts that don’t work so well.
- Not sure if the person you’ve been dating for two months is “the one”? Maybe date a little longer and reduce some of that uncertainty.
But here’s the thing: While we are all wired to avoid uncertainty, and frequently benefit from doing so, it’s a mistake to get in the habit of always avoiding it… After all, what kind of a life is it if you never take risks, never try new things, or never push yourself outside your comfort zone?
Unfortunately, it gets worse… Aside from your life becoming increasingly boring and uneventful, there’s an even bigger problem here:
Avoiding uncertainty gives relief from anxiety in the short-term, but it intensifies it in the long-term.
Here’s a simple example:
- A good friend texts you and invites you to a dinner party she’s hosting. But after hearing that most of the other guests will be people you don’t know, you begin to feel anxious.
- You worry about feeling awkward and uncomfortable explaining your boring job, for instance. You dread the idea of small-talk and superficial get-to-know-you chatter.
- The more you think about it, the more anxious you feel.
- At this point, the option to decline and make up a white lie about a previous engagement is getting pretty tempting because not only would it save you the potential anxiety of an awkward dinner party with people you don’t know (uncertainty!), but it would also immediately alleviate all the anxiety you’re feeling right now.
- So you text your friend that you won’t be able to make it. And sure enough, you immediately feel relieved.
The problem here is that while you’ve escaped uncertainty, and both your present and imagined anxiety, you’ve actually made it more likely that you’ll feel anxious in the future.
The fear center in your brain is always on the lookout for danger. And when it spots something, it makes you a little anxious (physiologically, anxiety is just adrenaline and your fight or flight system activating).
But critically, it also watches how you respond to that initial threat and hit of anxiety:
- Escape. Do you confirm your fear center’s initial assessment that the uncertainty of the dinner party is a threat to your survival by trying to escape it? If so, you will feel less anxious in the moment. But you’ve taught your brain that dinner parties with unfamiliar people are a threat to your survival. Which means the next time a similar opportunity shows up, you’re going to feel even more anxious and be more tempted to avoid it. See where this vicious cycle is going…?
- Approach. Or, you could dis-confirm your fear center’s initial assessment that the uncertainty of the dinner party is a threat by approaching it and going anyway, which would give your brain valuable feedback that just because it feels uncomfortable doesn’t mean it literally is dangerous. And while this might make you more anxious in the short-term, your brain would be less anxious the next time a situation like this came up. See where this virtuous circle is going… ?
Here’s the take-home message:
Avoiding uncertainty leads to short-term relief and long-term anxiety. Welcoming uncertainty leads to short-term anxiety and long-term confidence.
2. Avoiding helplessness
If there’s one thing human beings tend to avoid more than uncertainty it’s helplessness.
We absolutely hate feeling helpless.
- Feeling scared that your upcoming interview won’t go well and not being able to do anything about it now that it’s almost here.
- Being afraid of your son’s first airplane flight alone and not being able to do anything about it.
- Hearing your spouse talk about how depressed they’ve been feeling and knowing that you can’t make them feel better.
Of course, like uncertainty, some amount of helplessness is unavoidable in life because we just can’t control everything (and everyone).
But here’s the thing:
The urge to try and control the uncontrollable is surprisingly strong.
So strong, in fact, that we end up doing some surprisingly irrational and harmful things in order to maintain the illusion of control:
- You build up excessively high expectations for people in your life because, hey, if I can’t make them do well, telling myself that they should do well feels kinda close….
- You get overly involved in other people’s lives even though they’ve asked you not to (and it stresses you out).
- You replay mistakes and regrets in your head over and over again because even though you know intellectually that you can’t change the past, ruminating on it at least feels like you’re doing something productive and not totally helpless.
With a little self-reflection, you can probably think of many areas in your life where you try to control something that’s actually not under your control.
But there’s one big form of unhelpful (and anxiety-producing) control that most people miss:
You worry about things you can’t control because it temporarily makes you feel in control.
By definition, worry is unhelpful negative thinking about hypothetical or future problems. And as every chronic worrier will admit to, it leads to A LOT of anxiety. In fact, as I’ve made the case before, worry is the engine of anxiety.
But what’s weird about worry is that often when you’re worrying, you probably know intellectually that it’s not actually helpful. And that it’s only making you anxious and stressed.
And yet, you keep worrying… Why?
Well, just like we tend to eat junk food despite knowing that it’s bad for us, we worry because for a few brief minutes or seconds it feels good.
Worrying gives us something to do and makes us feel in control when we would otherwise feel helpless.
And because worry is so similar to problem-solving and planning, it’s easy to rationalize it. But in the end, worry is all side-effects and no benefit: It makes you incredibly anxious and doesn’t actually fix anything.
But because it temporarily feels good, we get addicted to it. Because it temporarily alleviates that terrible feeling of helplessness, we come back to it over and over again despite all the anxiety it generates.
Which is all to say that if you want to feel less anxious, you must learn to control your worry habit.
3. Avoiding boundary-setting
One of the most subtle but powerful causes of chronic anxiety is unhealthy boundaries:
- Always saying yes to your manager’s request to do “a little” extra work over the weekend
- Always “going with the flow” and agreeing to what your spouse wants to do for vacation
- Always answering your sister’s phone calls and listening to her vent and complain about her toxic relationship
I mean, think about it:
If you’re constantly taking on other people’s problems, and never have time to address your own wants and needs, how could you not be anxious!
But if it’s so obvious that unhealthy boundaries lead to anxiety, why do we struggle so much to set healthy boundaries?
While there are many, many reasons, one of the most important is this:
You struggle to set boundaries because you’re afraid to communicate assertively.
Now, a lot of people hear the term assertive and they think rude or pushy. But in reality, assertive communication is the healthy middle ground between aggressive and passive.
- Aggressive communication is when you try to get what you want but in a way that’s rude and disrespectful to others.
- Passive communication is when you’re disrespectful to your own wants and needs because you’re overly concerned with and accommodating of other people.
- Assertive communication means asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want in a way that’s respectful to yourself and the other person.
This isn’t the time or place to get into all of the nuances of how to be more assertive (this podcast interview I did with assertiveness expert Randy Paterson is a good quick overview if you’re interested).
But what’s key to realize is this:
If you’re unwilling to stand up for yourself, you’ll be unable to maintain healthy boundaries. And without healthy boundaries, your anxiety will skyrocket.
If you want to start feeling less anxious all the time, practice communicating assertively.