7 Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety (and What to Do Instead)

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Anxiety. It can make our heart beat faster, and our thoughts race. And, in moderation, it’s a completely normal response to stress about future events (like work, physical threats, family stress, etc.). But just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean we can’t erase the impact anxiety has on us. Yet, many of us haven’t learned healthy coping skills. We end up doing unhelpful things in search of relief. Sometimes, we don’t even know that we’re doing it, or what it looks like. Today, we’ll learn about unhealthy coping mechanisms for anxiety and discuss better alternatives.

1.   Ignoring Anxiety

Sometimes, it seems easier to ignore our anxiety than deal with it. But, like all problems, anxiety will only get worse if we do. At the very least, we’ll reinforce a loop of anxiety and suppression, and never deal with the root cause. E.g., We have to give a presentation to an important stakeholder at work, and we’re feeling anxious. Ignoring it is unlikely to make the anxiety go away.

Instead, try:

Acknowledging the anxiety.

We can simply say, “Oh, I’m feeling anxious about this presentation.” This doesn’t mean our anxiety will immediately disappear, but when we admit our emotions, they have less power over us. We don’t waste energy trying to cover them up. This is the first step to effective coping.

2.   Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing happens when we anticipate, without proof, the absolute worst outcome. This is a coping mechanism where we try to prepare ourselves for the unknown but often end up unnecessarily anxious. E.g., Before our meeting, we may think, “I’m going to make a mistake, get fired, have no income, and become homeless.”

Instead, try:

Considering all other possible outcomes (especially more realistic ones).

Maybe the meeting goes well, and we get promoted. Maybe we stumble through it, but it’s fine in the end. Maybe it goes poorly, and our boss gives us tips to do better next time. Heck maybe the stakeholder oversleeps their alarm, and the meeting gets canceled. The point is, that there are many ways things can play out. It’s helpful to keep a well-rounded perspective and not get sucked into an anxiety spiral.

3.   Being Self-Critical

When we’re experiencing anxiety, the last thing we need is to be criticized. We wouldn’t want someone else to do it, and we shouldn’t do it to ourselves. But this is often what happens. If we’re anxious about the upcoming work presentation, we may tell ourselves that we’re weak, or stupid, or that our worries don’t matter. We may scold ourselves for not being able to “suck it up” or compare ourselves to colleagues who seem more relaxed. But this only invalidates our experience and ruins our self-esteem. It does nothing to eliminate anxiety.

Instead, try:

Validating and normalizing the experience.

We can tell ourselves, “It’s okay that I feel anxious. Many people in my position would feel the same. My emotions are important, but they don’t define me.” Showing ourselves compassion allows us to fully accept our feelings and protect our self-esteem.

4.   Lashing Out

Likely, we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone’s misplaced anxiety. Maybe our spouse was anxious about our in-laws coming over and yelling at us about cleaning the house. Or perhaps our work presentation anxiety led us to snap at our coworker. No one deserves that, and it’s a quick way to harm our relationships.

Instead, try:

Taking responsibility for handling and expressing emotions appropriately.

When we notice ourselves feeling anxious, we can use some quick tools to cope, like:

  • Deep breathing
  • Removing ourselves from the situation until we feel better
  • Going for a walk
  • Journaling about our worries
  • Remembering that hurting others won’t reduce our anxiety

5.   Using Alcohol and Other Drugs

Using substances to cope with anxiety is a slippery, temporary slope. While alcohol and other substances (like nicotine, cannabis, etc.) are recreationally used by many, we should be mindful of when and why we use them. E.g., We should avoid anxiety-induced binge drinking or chain-smoking in the weeks leading up to our work presentation. Substances are a band-aid solution and don’t help us build long-term coping skills. It also puts our health at risk.

Instead, try:

6.   Isolation

When we’re anxious, it’s okay to need space to self-regulate. But fear, shame, or mental and emotional exhaustion may cause us to pull away from others. However, social support is incredibly important for our overall well-being and can be invaluable in moments of anxiety. Trusted people can provide a sense of safety and validation, give us good advice (if wanted), or offer a different perspective that we can’t see in our anxious state. Maybe our friend gave their own high-stakes work presentation and can provide tips and encouragement. Spending time with people can also pull us out of an anxious headspace, and into the present moment.

Instead, try:

Reaching out to others in times of distress.

7.   Being Overly Dependent on Others

On the flip side, being too reliant on others isn’t helpful. This may look like venting to our friends every day about our work presentation and expecting them to single-handedly soothe our emotions (without trying ourselves). Not only will this put a major strain on our loved ones, it also doesn’t allow us to build healthy coping mechanisms. If we rely solely on others, we never learn to rely on ourselves.

Instead, try:

Checking that others have the capacity to be supportive.

A good practice before emotionally unloading on someone is to ask, “Do you have the space to support me right now?” When we do this, we show respect for people’s time and emotional availability. Hearing “No.” may sting but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean people don’t care, just that they recognize they can’t give us the support we need.

In addition, it’s important that we learn some of the coping mechanisms listed throughout the article. This will help us feel confident in our ability to handle anxiety. Aim for a balanced approach that uses both personal and social tools.

In Summary

Anxiety is a normal human experience but using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with it doesn’t have to be. When we acknowledge our emotions, challenge our thoughts, and learn skillful ways to handle them, overcoming anxiety becomes easier (and healthier).

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