If you struggle with anxiety, you’ve probably heard the usual advice:
- You just need to relax and loosen up a little.
- Stop worrying and try to appreciate all the good things in your life.
- Try to live more in the moment.
And while well-intentioned, advice like this is awfully simplistic… If being less anxious were as simple as making a decision to loosen up, no one would be anxious!
What most people don’t realize is this:
There are often subtle psychological reasons why we get stuck feeling anxious.
In my work as a psychologist, I help my clients to understand the core mechanisms driving anxiety in the first place.
Because when you understand the real causes of your anxiety it’s a lot easier to move past it for good.
1. You have a low tolerance for uncertainty
Feeling uncertain can be anxiety-producing, especially when it comes to things that really matter to us:
- Should I take that new exciting job or stick with my boring but safe one?
- I like her but do I really love her enough to get married?
- Should I tell my boyfriend how unhappy I am with our sex life or not?
But even in relatively small things, uncertainty can still produce some anxiety:
- Should I take the freeway or side streets?
- Mystery or Rom-Com for movie night?
- Make lasagna or order take-out?
And because the anxiety of uncertainty feels so uncomfortable, our natural instinct is to do something to make it go away.
- Suppose you’re uncertain about whether to stay in your job and quit. Even though you’ve done all your research, talked to key advisers, and given yourself plenty of time to think it through, you still feel uncertain—and as a result, anxious.
- But you’ve decided you’re going to quit. So, you start typing out your resignation notice. But as you get to the final sentence, you feel a surge of anxiety! So you instinctively pick up the phone and call your spouse to check with them to make sure you’re doing the right thing.
- Your spouse reassures you, you feel less anxious, and you proceed to quit your job.
The problem here is that even though “checking in” with your spouse gave you some relief from your anxiety in the short term, it’s done something far worse in the long term…
When you use reassurance to escape uncertainty, you teach your brain to fear uncertainty and the anxiety that goes with it.
This means that the next time you feel uncertain, your brain is going to make you feel even more anxious about feeling uncertain. And this will lead to an even stronger impulse to avoid the uncertainty by seeking reassurance.
See where this vicious cycle is headed?
When your tolerance for uncertainty is low, your long-term anxiety will be high.
On the other hand…
If you want to decrease your anxiety in the long-term, you must be willing to tolerate it in the short-term.
When you face up to your uncertainty and all the anxiety that goes with it—accepting it instead of trying to get rid of it—you teach your brain that, while uncomfortable, uncertainty itself isn’t dangerous.
Do that enough and your confidence in your ability to tolerate that uncertainty will grow. And as your confidence grows, your anxiety will shrink.
You don’t have to like uncertainty. But if you want to feel less anxious, you need to learn to live with it instead of always trying to escape it.
2. You have a high need for control
Obviously, our ability to control things in life is a good thing…
- Being able to lower your blood pressure by exercising regularly is a useful form of control over your health.
- Being able to decline a second date with that creepy guy is a useful form of control over your social life.
- Being able to choose vanilla vs chocolate ice-cream is a nice form of control 🙂
But like so many things in life, appearances can be deceiving…
Just because the ability to exert control is often helpful doesn’t mean it’s always helpful.
And in fact, in certain situations, trying to exert control can actually backfire—sometimes spectacularly so!
A few examples of unhelpful attempts at control:
- Badgering your spouse about how they really need to get into therapy to take care of their anger issues. Each time you do it, their odds of going to therapy decrease and the odds of them resenting you increase (along with your frustration and anxiety).
- Trying hard to make yourself fall asleep. Trying hard to do anything increases your levels of arousal, which directly inhibits your ability to fall asleep. And when you don’t sleep well, you’re far more prone to anxiety.
- Wait up all night worrying about all the worst-case scenarios for your teenage son making a bad decision at that party. Not only will you be an anxious wreck, but worrying won’t actually change your kid’s decision-making.
But why do I keep doing it? Why do I keep trying to control things even though I know I can’t?
Here’s how it usually works:
- When faced with things outside our control, it’s natural to feel helpless.
- And in the very short-term, exerting control (however useless) feels good—it makes you feel in control and distracts you from that painful feeling of helplessness.
- Of course like any pain killer, the benefit is only temporary. Which means you’ll still be left with your helplessness in the end—along with the natural levels of anxiety and stress that go along with problem-solving and exerting control.
If you want to lower your anxiety for good, stop living in denial about your ability to control things you can’t.
Work to accept that bad things happen, helplessness is inevitable sometimes, and that trying to control the uncontrollable only makes things worse in the end.
Feeling helpless is hard enough… Why make yourself anxious too?
3. You try to manage your stress instead of your stressors
I think most people realize that chronic stress is a major contributor to anxiety…
- If you’re constantly overwhelmed at work, you’re probably going to be pretty anxious too.
- If you’re in an unhealthy and stressful relationship, you’re gonna have a lot of anxiety along with it.
- If you’re the primary caregiver for an aging and ill parent—one of the most stressful jobs there is—it’s natural to feel some anxiety as well.
But what most people don’t realize is that the common advance to manage your stress is actually a pretty terrible idea.
Wait, you’re a psychologist and you’re telling me that stress management is a bad thing?
For the most part, yes. And the reason comes down to a simple but crucial distinction between stress and stressors.
Stress, or being stressed, is a physical reaction to a stressor:
- Your boss sending a passive-aggressive email is a stressor; your shoulders tensing up in response is stress.
- Your spouse making a sarcastic comment after dinner is a stressor; feeling inadequate and insecure for hours after the fact is stress.
Most people spend so much time trying to manage their stress that they end up ignoring the real problem—the constant stream of stressors in their lives!
Of course, sometimes it’s literally impossible to change the stressors in your life. If you’re a soldier on the battlefield, you’re not going to have much luck convincing opposing soldiers to stop stressing you out so much.
But most of us, in most aspects of our lives, have more control over our stressors than we think…
For example, many people end up believing that rude or toxic people in their lives are an inevitable stressor that will never change. And as a result, all they can do is try to manage their own stress—do more meditation, think positive, etc.
But here’s the thing… I don’t care how much mindfulness meditation you practice, if you’re surrounded by jerks who demean you all the time, you’re going to feel pretty anxious!
Unfortunately, because of the cult of stress management, people end up believing that they’re the problem—If only I thought more positively, I wouldn’t be so stressed and anxious…
You don’t need more breathing exercises, positive mantras, or any other fad stress management techniques. What you really need is to quit obsessing about your stress and start focusing on how you can manage your stressors.
And 99% of the time, better stressor management (and less anxiety) comes down to being more assertive:
- Difficult as it may be, setting and enforcing healthy boundaries with your passive-aggressive spouse is going to do a lot more for your anxiety than trying to change your self-talk.
- Having an honest and respectful conversation with your manager about your workload is going to reduce your anxiety a lot more than deep breathing exercises before meetings.
- Consistently implementing (and sticking to) clear rules and consequences with your teenagers is going to do a lot more for your chronic worry and anxiety than a new brand of CBD gummies.
If you want to reduce your anxiety, stop relying on stress management to treat the symptoms and address the source by managing your stressors assertively.
4. You’re a People-Pleaser
Most people hate conflict.
In fact, they’re so afraid of conflict that they’ll do some pretty extreme things to avoid it…
- I had a client once who went along with her husband’s request for a divorce because she didn’t want to make him feel bad by explaining what she really wanted from him in their sexual life.
- Then there was the guy who put up was so afraid of upsetting his boss that he routinely worked 60 hour weeks (instead of 40) and frequently missed major family events like birthday parties and recitals.
But of course, people-pleasing shows up in all sorts of small ways too:
- Always “going with the flow” and agreeing to whatever movie your spouse wants to watch.
- Holding back a piece of valuable criticism from a coworker because you don’t want them to feel bad.
Regardless of the details, here’s the thing about people-pleasing:
When you habitually prioritize other people at the expense of yourself, you teach your mind that you’re not important.
Do this long enough, and your confidence is going to drop. And when confidence drops, anxiety is sure to rise.
Thankfully, you can reduce your anxiety and boost your confidence by practicing assertiveness with the people in your life.
The key is to start small:
- Take back that Starbucks drink they got wrong and ask for another.
- When the meeting room gets awkwardly silent after your manager asks who wants to take on the new project, tolerate the awkwardness and let someone else take it.
- Tell your spouse, “no, actually, I think I’d prefer Thai food tonight.”
Obviously, it’s good to think about other people and be considerate of their wants and needs.
But like anything, this can be taken too far.
If you want to reduce your chronic anxiety, start sticking up for yourself and your own wants and needs a little more.
All You Need to Know
If you want to lower your anxiety for good, you need to identify and reduce the core mechanisms maintaining your anxiety.
Practice tolerating uncertainty instead of avoiding it.
Accept your helplessness instead of numbing it out.
Manage your stressors, not your stress.
Be assertive about your own wants and needs.