Mental Health

Fighting your Anxiety is a Surefire Way of Flaring It

Part 3 of 3 techniques to reduce social anxiety and improve mental health

Photo of author without the helpful barista

There’s a big difference between worrying about something and worrying about something and beating yourself up about it.

Anxiety is magnified when it becomes circular, i.e. when you hate yourself for being anxious. When you get into the habit of fighting your anxiety, you exacerbate it, and risk developing a disorder.

The sad reality is that we’re still a long ways away from fully understanding how to recognize, manage, and mitigate anxiety. Mental health education doesn’t reach most people, even if they’re suffering themselves. Anxiety tends to become more severe the longer it festers.

In terms of social anxiety, the behavioral changes that come from being on edge all the time become a self-defeating practice. The longer you leave it unattended, the closer you get to becoming as unpleasant and unattractive as you imagine yourself to be.

Some common behavioral issues stemming from unaddressed social anxiety are:

  • You are frequently irritated by people, thinking they’re demeaning you
  • You derail conversations to make yourself look better, because you feel bad about yourself inside
  • Every conversation becomes a competition and you try to one-up others

These are overcompensations that we use to try and feel better inside. However, they don’t work. Instead, it is better to have some self-soothing techniques to help you calm down.

People self-soothe unconsciously by fidgeting and gently touching themselves, closing off their body language by turning away, or by distracting themselves.

Doing these with intention can help you tone down the stress you feel. A simple, discreet self-soothing technique is to press your thumb and middle finger together, and allowing yourself to feel stable in the pressure between your fingers.

This is one example of a technique called . Read more about grounding here: https://eddinscounseling.com/grounding-techniques-self-soothing-emotional-regulation/

Corollary: You can be charming by displaying a little vulnerability, if it comes with ownership

Of course, self-soothing isn’t a permanent solution. Trying to address your anxiety long term will help you live a happier and healthier life.

Instead of trying to fight anxiety, try accepting it and allowing yourself to be vulnerable about it. In social anxiety terms, this means admitting to your stress or nervousness. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’ll be honest. I’m a bit nervous right now.”

However, this comes with a caveat. If you frequently shirk away from conversations because you’re anxious (e.g. “I can’t talk right now because I’m stressed.”), you risk coming off as un-social. You also never practice dealing with the stress you feel.

Instead, complete your thought with a positive. “I’ll be honest. I’m a bit nervous right now. But I’m also excited to talk to you.” Not only does this make you charming because you own your vulnerability, it also reframes your anxiety in your own head.

We are more malleable than we think, and you can often change how you feel based on what you say. The more you practice being vulnerable and turning it into a positive, the more likely you will actually start feeling that way inside.

This is one way to apply a technique called . Affirmations are generally repeated to yourself in a mirror, but they don't have to be. Read more about affirmations here: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/affirmations.htm

And finally, here’s a technique that I developed when I was under a lot of stress.

Technique: chattering restaurant

One night at 10 PM, I got several back-to-back calls from a few stressed-out friends. A mutual female friend had left their company a few hours prior but had not responded to phone calls since, and had not confirmed that she’d reached home. Since I lived nearby, they wanted me to go check on her.

I called up another man who lived nearby and we both made our way to her house. On the way, I was sitting in a cab with nothing but my own thoughts, which just so happened to be flying all over the place. What if she was waylaid on the way? What if she was assaulted?

I knew it was probably nothing; that she had probably gone home and fallen asleep. But an anxious brain conjures the worst-case scenarios, and I knew that I was not going to be able to stop myself from thinking these things.

So for some reason, I imagined myself sitting in a restaurant. I imagined that all these thoughts were idle chatter from other patrons, sitting at other tables. They had nothing to do with me, and it would be rude of me to ask them to quieten down. Instead, I should let them play out and focus on my own table.

The effect was immediate. Because I was no longer fighting my anxious thoughts, it took away a lot of power from them. It felt like I was letting sea foam wash over me and then wash away.

The chattering restaurant (or even the sea foam) is a visualization technique. Visualizations help you reframe your thoughts, and consequently the emotive reactions you have to them. You can use these visualizations to temper your anxiety, including social anxiety. You’ll find it easier to exist in the present conversation if you focus on your partner and allow your thoughts to fade into the chattering background.

And yes, my friend had gone home and fallen asleep.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Vaibhav Gupta

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Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt