Chronic anxiety is awful.
And it’s frequently one of—if not the—primary causes of issues like…
- Chronic stress and burnout
- Self-doubt and perfectionism
- Insomnia and sleep problems
- Depression and low self-esteem
Unfortunately, many approaches to dealing with anxiety actually make it worse in the long-run because they only address the symptoms of anxiety and unintentionally reinforce the underlying causes.
- Positive self-talk and affirmations can make you feel better in the moment, but can also worsen anxiety long-term because they foster evaluative thinking, which is at the root of most negative self-talk and self-criticism.
- Alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs (include some prescription drugs) can give temporary relief, but also rob you of the opportunity to face your anxiety and build true confidence.
- Reassurance-seeking with friends, family members, or even mental health professionals gives a short respite from anxiety but eventually leads to unhealthy dependence and low assertiveness which makes anxiety worse in the end.
The real secret to lowering chronic anxiety is to stop trying to manage the symptoms, and instead, address the root causes maintaining it in the first place.
Here are 4 ways to stop chronic anxiety for good.
1. Stop Judging Your Anxiety
Because anxiety feels bad it’s easy to end up thinking that it literally is bad or dangerous. But when you get in the habit of judging or criticizing your anxiety, it only makes the anxiety stronger and more frequent.
Let’s look at how this happens…
First, judgmentalness of anxiety usually shows up as negative self-talk:
- Ugh… I hate this anxiety that I always get before traveling.
- Oh no, what if I get too anxious or panic while I’m giving my speech?
- My stupid anxiety just won’t go away… I wish I could just get rid of this for good.
While this kind of inner speech is totally understandable and normal, it’s unhelpful because of the message it sends to your own brain. Specifically, when you get in the habit of judging or critiquing your anxiety, it signals to your brain that anxiety is dangerous and a threat.
And when your brain thinks something is a threat, two things happen:
- Your mind becomes hypervigilant to that threat. In this case, you become extra sensitive to anxiety. You start noticing it more and more when previously it would have just “rolled off” you. In short, when you train your brain to see anxiety as a threat, the frequency of anxiety increases significantly.
- You start attacking or running away from the threat. In the case of anxiety, the minute you start feeling anxious, your mind immediately goes to what you can do to get rid of or avoid the anxiety. But the more you avoid or try to get rid of anxiety, the more you strengthen the belief that it’s dangerous. The end result is that the intensity of your anxiety goes up and up. In other words, your anxiety starts feeling more and more intense over time.
Obviously, being critical and judgmental of your anxiety only makes it worse in the long-term. But how do you stop if you’ve already built up a strong habit of being judgmental with your anxiety?
Instead of criticizing your anxiety, practice validating it instead.
Validation means reminding yourself that just because anxiety feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad (or you’re bad for feeling it). And that despite being unhelpful, it probably makes sense on some level that you’re feeling anxious.
Ultimately, if you want to be less anxious you have to change your relationship to anxiety. Instead of treating it like a threat that’s out to get you, you need to start treating it like a friend that’s trying to help. And even if that friend is misguided or giving you bad advice, that doesn’t mean they’re bad or that you need to get rid of them.
Learn More: How to Validate Your Emotions →
2. Break Your Worry Habit
If you’ve got chronic anxiety, you’ve also got chronic worry.
See, while everything from early childhood trauma to poor sleep can predispose you to feeling anxious, there is only one direct cause of anxiety: worry
When you worry, you feel anxious. And when you’re in the habit of constantly worrying, you will feel constantly anxious.
Chronic worry is the mental habit of thinking negative, unhelpful, and anxiety-producing thoughts about the future. The key term in here is unhelpful. Thinking about negative things isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact, it can be quite helpful and is a key part of effective planning and problem-solving.
What distinguishes chronic worry from more generic negative thinking about the future is that it’s unproductive. Actually, it’s worse than that… Not only does worry not solve anything, it actively increases your anxiety and stress levels.
- Maybe you worry a lot about your loved ones being safe or getting hurt somehow. You worrying about your son getting in a car crash on a road trip with his friends doesn’t do anything to keep him safe. But it does increase your anxiety.
- Maybe you worry about how people think of you at work. You playing out scenarios in your head about how so-and-so at work thinks you’re dumb and don’t deserve to be in your position doesn’t change what they think or how dumb/smart you are. But it will make you much more anxious at work.
- Or maybe you worry about getting anxious, which is a common feature of panic especially. Worrying about anxiety does nothing to prevent anxiety from arriving; in fact, it does the opposite—it makes it more likely to show up!
No matter what type of anxiety you struggle with—from social and health anxiety to panic attacks and sleep anxiety—the only way to feel less anxious long-term is to break the habit of worrying.
Easier said than done, of course. Like all thoughts, worries can be hard to deal with because they often happen so quickly and automatically.
One of the best ways to get better at being more aware of your worries and disengaging from them is to get started with mindfulness training. Mindfulness training is a structured exercise designed to improve your attentional control, which is essential for breaking any unhelpful mental habit, including chronic worry.
Learn More: Mindfulness Training →
3. Ditch Your Coping Skills
This will no doubt be the most controversial point in this article, but hear me out…
A whole generation of people have been taught that the way to deal with emotional pain of any variety—but especially anxiety—is to develop a “toolbox” of coping skills you can pull out and use any time you’re upset or struggling emotionally.
Some of the most common coping skills include:
- Deep breathing
- Positive affirmations and self-talk
- Mindfulness meditation
Now, to be clear, I don’t think any of these things are bad or unhelpful in and of themselves. The problem is when we use them as coping mechanisms, that is, when the motivation behind them is to change how you feel emotionally.
When your intention is to get rid of or avoid a painful feeling like anxiety, it signals to your brain that the anxiety is dangerous and a threat. So even if you get some immediate relief from your coping skill, you will have even more anxiety next time anxiety shows up because you’re having anxiety about anxiety!
Like all addictions, the dependence on coping skills gives short-term relief at the expense of long-term suffering.
So what are you supposed to do when you feel bad if you can’t use coping skills?
You will only become confident and resilient in the face of anxiety if you practice accepting it and being willing to have it.
Now, like most things, it takes time to build up your competence and confidence doing this. Which is why it’s important to start small and practice with less intense emotions first.
For example, if you find yourself feeling a little bit nervous about an upcoming conversation, set a timer on your phone for 30 seconds and be willing to be anxious for those 30 seconds before you do something else. Don’t do anything to distract yourself or lessen the anxiety. Just have it and accept it.
Eventually, you will get better and better at tolerating anxiety, which means you’ll feel less of a need to cope with them in the first place. And that tolerance is the mark of a truly healthy relationship with your emotions.
Learn More: How to Build Emotional Endurance →
4. Set Healthy Boundaries
One of the biggest risk factors for chronic anxiety is chronic stress. Which makes sense, right? If you’re constantly stressed out, you’re much more likely to end up worrying—and you’ll have a harder time breaking free from worry—which means your anxiety will be constantly elevated.
But here’s what’s surprising to many people…
One of the biggest causes of chronic stress is poor boundaries.
A boundary means you’re able to say no to other people and their requests of you, which if you think about it, is a huge proportion of your overall stress…
- The manager you constantly asks you to do extra work over the weekend
- The relative who’s always asking (or guilt tripping) you to host parties and events
- The spouse or partner who always “forgets” to do chores or tasks, leaving you to pick up the slack
All of these are stressors—things that trigger stress, and eventually, anxiety in your life. But they only cause stress because you’re unwilling to say no to them and establish firm boundaries…
- No, I won’t spend half my weekend doing extra work.
- No, I won’t host Thanksgiving dinner again this year.
- No, I won’t pick up your dirty clothes that you leave lying around the room.
Of course, saying no and setting healthy boundaries is tough, in part because it makes us anxious!
- We’re afraid of disappointing our manager and coworkers.
- We’re afraid of seeming rude or insensitive to our family.
- We’re afraid that our spouse or partner will get upset if we say no and stick up for ourselves.
But you must be willing to tolerate that fear and anxiety if you want to follow-through on your good intention to set—and enforce!—healthy boundaries, which in the long-run are critical for your overall stress and anxiety going down.
Learn More: How to Set Healthy Boundaries →
All You Need to Know
To sum up, here are 4 ways to lower chronic anxiety by addressing the root causes that maintain it in the first place:
- Stop Judging Your Anxiety
- Break Your Worry Habit
- Ditch Your Coping Skills
- Set Healthy Boundaries
Work with Me to End Chronic Anxiety
Several times a year, I teach a live course called Creating Calm that will teach you how to transform your mindset from anxious and worried to confident and calm.