Sometimes when you feel frustrated about your anxiety, you might start comparing yourself to people who don’t appear to have much anxiety…people you consider “normal”.
You might see yourself as flawed because of your anxiety problem, and you wonder why it seems so easy for other people to just not worry about things. You wonder what everyone else seems to know that you don’t.
Well, if you have an anxiety problem, that does not mean there is something inherently wrong with you. It just means that something you are doing is not working. Those people you see who don’t have problems with anxiety are not somehow better or smarter than you are, but they are doing some key things differently.
And I’m going to tell you what those things are, because the good news is that you can do them too. There are no big secrets or magic tricks here. These are all straightforward habits that you can get into, starting right now.
Below, I’ll detail 5 habits typical of people who don’t have an anxiety problem (I’ll call these Effective Habits) and compare them with what somebody with an anxiety problem would do (I’ll call these Anxiety Habits).
If you start doing the Effective Habits more often than you do the Anxiety Habits, you will eventually start to notice a change in your anxiety. This works because the Anxiety Habits fuel the anxiety…they keep it going in the long run. So if you stop giving anxiety its fuel by changing these habits, eventually it runs out of steam and gets better.
In the long run, your anxiety will only change if you change your behavior. And even though you can’t control the anxiety, you definitely CAN control what you do.
1. The Effective Habit: When you feel anxious, don’t fight it…let it be.
The Anxiety Habit: When you feel anxious, do whatever you can to make it go away.
The most basic, most important thing to know about anxiety is that avoidance does not work. The harder you try to not feel anxious, the more anxious you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious, the more anxious you will be in the long run. This is why anxiety does not get better on its own.
The alternative to avoidance is acceptance: instead of fighting the anxiety, the Effective Habit is to allow the anxiety to be there. If fighting it just makes it worse, then acceptance must be the answer. This might sound crazy at first, but it really does work.
People who don’t have an anxiety problem DO still have some anxiety…it’s a normal part of life.
But they don’t give much time to their anxiety even when it does come up. They don’t give the anxiety respect. They don’t treat it as a problem, and the anxiety eventually backs down without them having to do anything about it. But anxiety feeds off of you fighting with it; so if you fight it, it only gets worse.
Don’t give your anxiety respect. Don’t give it your time. Stop doing all the things you’ve been doing to fight it, and it will eventually lift on its own.
2. The Effective Habit: You allow for and tolerate uncertainty.
The Anxiety Habit: Uncertainty is intolerable: you must MAKE SURE of everything.
In some way, almost all forms of anxiety stem from fear of uncertainty. People who have an anxiety problem are intolerant of uncertainty. They feel like they MUST know things and be in control of every situation. But this is never possible…life always involves some uncertainty.
People who don’t have an anxiety problem know this and accept it. When they are not sure what is going to happen, they don’t go to excessive lengths to try and figure it out. They don’t spend much time mentally analyzing situations or preparing and planning for every possible outcome.
They don’t try to answer questions about the future that can’t possibly be answered. Sure, everyone has to spend some time planning for the future, but they keep it to a minimum. Their attention is more focused on what is happening in the present moment instead of what might happen in the future.
When they are unsure about something, they allow themselves to move on with their day even if they can’t resolve it. They let themselves not know things.
3. The Effective Habit: You put no demands on yourself to feel calm. You allow yourself to feel however you feel.
The Anxiety Habit: You believe that you SHOULDN’T feel anxious, so you try to fight it.
People with an anxiety problem put demands on their feelings. They believe there is a right way and a wrong way to feel in any given situation. They might deem it ok to feel anxious before giving a speech in front of 100 people, but not ok to be sitting at work feeling panicky for seemingly no reason.
Well unfortunately, your mind does not care about “should”. You feel the way you feel. There is no “should”, your feelings just are what they are. Demanding that they be anything other than what they are is just going to drive you nuts, because feelings are something that happens to you, not something you choose.
People who do not have an anxiety problem accept this. They have no expectations that they should feel calm all the time. So when they don’t feel calm, this is no big deal. And they don’t treat it like it’s a big deal. They let themselves feel whatever they feel and move on with their day.
4. The Effective Habit: You let yourself think “negative thoughts”.
The Anxiety Habit: You consider “negative thoughts” dangerous and try not to think about them.
At first glance, you might think I wrote this one backwards: isn’t it bad to think negative thoughts? Isn’t that part of the problem? Absolutely not.
You probably know what happens when you try to stop thinking about something: it just makes you think about it more, right? Well, people with a lot of anxiety tend to do this a lot, even though it doesn’t work. Certain thoughts are so painful to them that they consider these thoughts dangerous, and they do anything in their power to not think about them…but that just ends up making it worse.
You might be surprised to learn that people who don’t have an anxiety problem also have lots of negative thoughts…they just deal with them in a very different way: They don’t try to do anything about them.
When they have negative thoughts, they simply don’t spend much time on them. They accept the negative thoughts rather than fighting them, which makes the thoughts lose their power.
5. The Effective Habit: When you feel anxious, you keep doing what you were doing anyway.
The Anxiety Habit: When you feel anxious, you spend your time differently than you normally do; you stop doing certain activities.
This is one of the most important habits to know. When someone with an anxiety problem feels anxious, they treat this as something that MUST change before they can do anything else. They therefore might stop working, seeing friends, or exercising until they can calm themselves down. Only then will they continue on with their day. This leads to shutting down, inactivity, more anxiety, and depression because avoidance keeps anxiety going in the long run.
When people who don’t have an anxiety problem feel anxious, they don’t let it stop them from doing anything. They keep right on going, in spite of the anxiety. They accept that some anxiety is a normal part of life and by not letting it change how they spend their time, they prevent it from becoming a persistent problem.
If you find yourself doing more of the Anxiety Habits, try making a lifestyle change towards the Effective Habits. If you consistently use these strategies, you will no longer be doing the things that fuel the anxiety, and it will eventually get better because of your changed behavior.
Interested in learning some of the most common and most effective strategies I teach my clients for dealing with anxiety and worry? Check out my self-help video series, How to Stop Overanalyzing, with over 3 hours of content covering the skills I teach to almost all of my clients in the first 5 therapy sessions.