Most people struggle with anxiety way more than they should.
But the reason why is not what you think…
- It’s not because of hormones or brain chemistry
- It’s not because of what happened in your past
- And it’s definitely not because Mercury is in retrograde!
The real reason anxiety is such a problem is that we misunderstand what it really is and how it works.
In the rest of this article, we’re going to look at 3 surprising facts about anxiety and how they can help you feel less anxious by changing the way you think about and respond to your anxiety.
1. Worry is the only direct cause of anxiety
There are lots of things that predispose you to being anxious:
- It could be your slightly neurotic personality
- It could be your marijuana addiction
- It could be your lack of quality sleep
- It could be the traumatic event you experienced as a 22-year-old
- It could be that you’re going through menopause
- It could be your habit of checking Instagram every 10 minutes
- It could be your diet
You get the idea…
There are an almost infinite number of things that indirectly influence anxiety.
But none of them cause anxiety directly.
After all, there are plenty of people who smoke marijuana, experienced trauma, or find themselves going through menopause who don’t get chronically anxious.
So what’s going on here?
Well, the only thing that actually causes anxiety directly is worrying.
Worrying is the mental habit of thinking negative and unhelpful thoughts about the future.
When you worry you feel anxious. And when you’re in the habit of worrying, you feel really anxious.
- “What if I fail my interview? → Performance anxiety
- “Why is my heart beating faster? I’m having a heart attack and I’m gonna die” → Panic
- “This date is going terribly… She thinks I’m an idiot.” → Social anxiety
- “What if I can’t fall asleep at all tonight? Tomorrow’s gonna be miserable” → Sleep anxiety
Remember all those things that I said predispose you to anxiety—trauma, bad sleep, social media addiction—they indirectly cause you to be anxious because they predispose you to worry…
- Instagram itself doesn’t make you anxious. But seeing your best friend on vacation and then worrying that they’re a better parent than you are because they seem so fun and easy-going with their kids… that does cause anxiety.
- The memory of a traumatic event itself doesn’t make you anxious. But worrying about that event happening again will make you anxious.
- A neurotic personality itself doesn’t make you anxious. But it makes it more likely that you will worry about all sorts of things, and that worry will make you anxious.
Now, this might seem like an overly technical or minor distinction but it makes all the difference in the world.
And here’s why….
You can’t control your personality, what happened to you when you were 12, or whether something on Instagram is triggering. But you can always control your habit of worrying.
No matter what predisposing factors for anxiety you have in your life—from trauma to poor sleep—you can always be less anxious by managing your worry better.
Is it easy? Of course not.
But can you do it, especially if you’re willing to work at it and practice? Absolutely!
Like any other skill in life—from playing piano to running a marathon—your skill and confidence comes down to how frequently you practice.
But how do I practice not worrying so much?
The first step is to get better at noticing when you’re worrying. Because if you can recognize your worry habit early before it’s generated a lot of anxiety, it’s much easier to let go of it.
- As soon as you notice yourself feeling anxious, use that as a cue to ask yourself: What worry is producing this anxiety?
- Once you identify the worry, take a second to acknowledge the worry and briefly validate it: I’m worrying right now. I don’t like worry and I would like to stop, but it’s understandable given my background/lack of sleep/etc.
- Refocus your attention on something productive. For example: “Instead of worrying, I’m going to focus on this conversation I’m in and what my partner is saying.”
Practice these three steps, especially in small moments of anxiety when it’s easier, and you’ll find that your ability to notice and let go of worries improves. And as a result, you’ll feel a whole lot less anxious.
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”
— Swedish proverb
2. If you’re chronically anxious, you need better boundaries
One of the biggest predisposing factors for anxiety is so common and pervasive that we almost lose sight of it as a major factor in anxiety…
When you’re chronically stressed, you are far more likely to worry. And the more you worry, the more anxious you will be.
Which means, if you want to feel less anxious, reducing chronic stress is key.
The problem is most people go about dealing with stress all wrong…
Everybody focuses on stress management but really you should be focused on stressor management.
Stress is how you feel physically when something stressful happens: For example, after a long day of unproductive meetings, you find your shoulders incredibly tense and sore.
The typical stress management approach is to take a Motrin, maybe do some stretches before bed, and then try to get a good night’s sleep and feel better in the morning.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with taking a pain-killer or stretching. But when they’re your only strategy for dealing with stress you’re in trouble.
Stress management addresses the symptoms of your stress, but not the root cause—the stressor.
Which is why you need to shift out of a stress management mindset and into a stressor management mindset.
And 90% of the time, the way to address your stressors effectively is to get better at setting healthy boundaries.
- If you’re chronically stressed because of working too much, the answer isn’t a spa day or an extra glass of wine in the evenings. The answer is to set better boundaries on your work… Saying no to working in the evenings or on the weekends, for instance.
- If you’re chronically stressed by your family because they tend to be overly-critical or passive-aggressive in their communication, the answer isn’t to do deep breathing exercises before every family gathering. The answer is to set better boundaries on their bad behavior… Leaving conversations when they get critical or not responding to passive-aggressive requests.
Chronic stress makes you far more vulnerable to worry and anxiety. And the best way to manage your stress effectively is to set better boundaries on your stressors—the things producing the stress in the first place.
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
— William James
3. The more you avoid anxiety, the worse it gets
If you struggle with chronic anxiety, you’re no doubt familiar with the incredibly frustrating experience of doing something you think will help with anxiety, feeling like it worked in the short-term, only to have your anxiety come raging back even stronger long-term.
Well, there’s a very good reason for this…
Coping with anxiety is actually a subtle avoidance strategy that makes anxiety worse long-term.
Let me explain…
- When you feel anxious, it’s perfectly natural to want to avoid or get rid of that emotional pain.
- So you reach into your “toolbox” of coping skills and pull one out—let’s say deep breathing—and use it to feel better.
- In the short term, it works! You feel some relief from anxiety after using your deep breathing coping skill.
- But by immediately coping with your anxiety and trying to make it go away, you’ve taught your brain that anxiety is not okay to have—that it’s a threat.
- So, even though you got some relief in the short-term, you’ve made yourself more vulnerable to anxiety long-term because you’ve reinforced the incorrect belief that anxiety is bad or dangerous.
- The result is that your brain will be increasingly vigilant for anxiety, which means you’ll notice small bits of anxiety more in the future.
- And you’ll also end up feeling anxious about your anxiety, because your brain believes it’s a threat.
- Which means not only will the frequency of your anxiety increase, but also the intensity.
Coping with anxiety is an addiction: It feels good now at the expense of feeling much worse later.
The only way to break this vicious cycle is to teach your brain the opposite lesson…
Just because anxiety feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad or dangerous.
And the only way to teach your brain this lesson is to approach your anxiety and be willing to tolerate it rather than insisting that it go away.
So what does it look like to actually tolerate your anxiety and be willing to have it?
Well, just like we talked about the importance of acknowledging and validating your worry earlier and how that makes it easier to let go and move on from it in a healthy way, the same is true of anxiety.
- Instead of getting self-critical with yourself when you feel anxious (God, why do I always get so anxious over silly things?!), you could acknowledge and validate the anxiety: Okay, I’m feeling anxious right now. And even though I don’t like feeling this way, it’s understandable that I’m anxious and it’s not bad.
- Instead of immediately distracting yourself from anxiety by scrolling social media or calling up a friend, you could say this to yourself: I’m anxious about this upcoming doctor’s appointment. I don’t like feeling this way but it’s okay. Everybody gets anxious sometimes. And if you’re going to feel anxious about something, feeling anxious about your health makes a lot of sense.
If you do these two things well—acknowledge and validate your anxiety—you’ll be much better prepared for the final step which is the hardest…
You must be genuinely willing to have anxiety and get on with your life anyway.
Just like we aspire to be tolerant of other people with different customs or beliefs—some of which might make us extremely uncomfortable—it’s critical that we practice being tolerant of our own uncomfortable emotions, including anxiety.
And just like tolerance of other people is easy to say, but harder to do, so too with anxiety: it takes practice and commitment to be truly tolerant of our anxiety and willing to have it instead of always running away from it or trying to “cope” with it.
But, at the end of the day, the only way to become truly confident and resilient in the face of anxiety is to retrain your mind to stop viewing anxiety as a threat, and instead, see it as a messenger delivering an uncomfortable but non-threatening message.
In other words…
To be truly free from anxiety, you must be willing to have it.
Practice building emotional endurance.
You will find peace not by trying to escape your problems, but by confronting them courageously.
— J Donald Walters
All You Need to Know
If you want to overcome anxiety long-term, you need to understand how it really works. Here are 3 surprising facts about anxiety everyone should know:
- Worry is the only direct cause of anxiety. The best way to improve any type of anxiety—from social or health anxiety to generalized anxiety and panic—is to break the habit of chronic worry.
- If you’re chronically anxious, you need better boundaries. It’s hard to be calm if you’re stressed, and you will always be stressed if you can’t say no.
- The more you avoid anxiety, the worse it gets. To free yourself from anxiety, you must be willing to have it.
Learn More About Anxiety
- Creating Calm: A Step-by-Step System to End Chronic Worry and Anxiety for Good →
- Chronic Worry: A friendly Mind Guide →
- 4 Ways to Lower Chronic Anxiety →