Placing judgment on yourself for being anxious increases the problem. You then go in a negative thought tailspin and have difficulty getting out of it. Remember, these thoughts are just thoughts.
When anxiety paralyzes you
Before I became a therapist, I never knew what to call what I was experiencing. As a teenager, I thought what was going on was normal--that everyone experienced it. I had difficulty sleeping, a constantly running mind, and negative self-talk that made me believe not-so-great things about myself.
Throughout college, I still struggled with it; however, because I was in psychology courses, I now had something to call what I was experiencing and what millions of other people experience on a daily basis: anxiety.
As I sit here trying to write about anxiety, I feel myself getting anxious. I feel it in my heart and in my chest. I feel it in my stomach where I typically will have severe nausea. I feel it in my thoughts, asking me things like “Who do you think you are?” and “You can’t do anything right.” I feel it in my hands, as they begin to tremble while my fingers graze across the keyboard.
Where do you feel anxiety?
Anxiety looks different from person to person but usually has similar characteristics. Anxiety can be a range of symptoms including persistent worry, fear, panic, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, isolation, panic attacks, chest pain, or nausea. It can lead to many physical medical conditions in addition to psychological pain. Many people with persistent anxiety will argue that the psychological distress is far worse than the physical.
For me, anxiety is perfectionism. It’s a constant worry of things that could go wrong, ways that I am being perceived, or my stomach dropping if I make a simple mistake. It’s something that gets better and then gets worse. It comes in waves. It comes when you least expect it. It comes when things are going well. It comes when things are going poorly. It just comes.
While we can identify triggers and be aware of things that increase our anxiety, it’s even more important to know what to do when these symptoms arise.
What Do I Do?
Noticing the physical response I’m having just simply writing about anxiety is the first step to do something about it. Instead of forcing myself to continue writing and “get it done”, I took a small break after becoming aware of the symptoms to get up, walk around, and grab a drink of water. When I sat back down to write this paragraph, I physically felt more calm and am able to focus and write what I intend to write. Anxiety can paralyze you. It can cause you to avoid daily life tasks, people who are important to you, and makes doing simple things extremely difficult. Below are some things to do when noticing anxiety in yourself and are suggestions. It’s up to you to find the exact recipe that works for your anxiety symptoms!
1. Notice non-judgmentally.
In order to change any behaviors or symptoms, we first have to recognize that there is something to change. To notice when you are anxious, you have to be aware of how your physical body is responding. If you start to get hot, trembly, breathe faster and experience increased heart rate, you could say something like, “I am noticing my breathing get faster and my stomach feel nausea. I must be feeling nervous about something.” Additionally, it is not helpful to place judgment on yourself for feeling this way. These thoughts are something like this:
While these thoughts are the more instinctual thoughts, they are not helpful. Placing judgment on yourself for being anxious increases the problem. You then go in a negative thought tailspin and have difficulty getting out of it. Remember, these thoughts are just thoughts. You first have to notice they are there in order to change them.
2. Be curious.
As mentioned above, being judgmental about the way we are feeling or our anxiety is not helpful. Instead, be curious about the anxiety if you don’t know directly what the trigger was. For example these thoughts could look like this:
anxiety versus beating yourself up about it. Starting your thoughts with “I’m noticing” or “I’m observing that” creates distance between you and your anxious thoughts so that you can take action instead of become paralyzed and stuck in the ruminating cycle.
3. Take action.
In order to change our thoughts, we have to first be aware that they are there, be curious about why and then use coping skills in order to bring your body back to regulated. Once you start noticing your physical body getting escalated, you have to calm this down first. In order to calm our minds, we have to first regulate our bodies. In doing so, you can do anything using your senses. Examples include:
Robin Helget, LMSW, CPT
“Maybe there's more we all could have done, but we just have to let the guilt remind us to do better next time.” ― Veronica Roth, Divergent
Guilt is an emotion that we feel when our behaviors goes against our values. Feeling guilty is a normal and common emotion that many of us feel; however, there are many times when guilt turns unhealthy: when we beat ourselves up for making normal mistakes, for living when someone else passes, or when we say “No” to someone who wanted to hang out. This article will explain the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt and offer ways to change and control your thinking.
As imperfect humans, we many times find ourselves making mistakes. When this happens, we have thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have done that”, “I need to apologize”, or “(S)he isn’t going to like me anymore after s(he) knows what I did in my past”. Through a therapist’s lens, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a type of therapy that focuses on how your thoughts shape our emotions which then shape our behaviors, explains that these thoughts will then lead to how you feel.
A common and healthy emotion that many of us feel when our behaviors don’t coincide with our values or morals is guilt. The feeling of guilt says “I know I shouldn’t have done that”. This is a normal and common emotion. What would happen if you didn’t have this emotion? You would likely be unaware of how your actions impact others, yourself or the world and have no reason to change your behavior.
Feeling guilty is a normal human response. When we feel guilty, we have the opportunity to change our behavior, make up for the mistake we made, and plan or choose to do differently in the future. However, there are times when feeling guilty can become unhealthy.
Unhealthy guilt stems from feeling guilty about behaviors that don’t necessarily go against your values or beliefs. It means feeling guilty simply by beating yourself up for making a mistake, or for feeling bad for sticking up for yourself, or for putting boundaries where boundaries are needed to be placed.
Many times, people with perfectionistic personalities or behaviors, people-pleasing tendencies, and “heroes” in dysfunctional families can silently suffer from unhealthy guilt. The effects of this can be detrimental and can include any of the following:
Example: Survivor’s Guilt.
Survivor’s guilt is feeling guilty for living when someone else didn’t. Although that may
sound harsh to read, feeling guilt after someone else passes is a normal response to
grief but can often lead to unhealthy emotions and behaviors.
Ways to Overcome Unhealthy Guilt:
Identify the thought.
We can’t change anything without having the awareness that the change needs to happen. To first change a thought, we have to identify what the thought is. Let’s use this example: You have worked 52 hours this week and had plans to meet with friends on Friday night for dinner and drinks out. By the time Friday is here, you are exhausted and aren’t looking forward to expending the energy to a group of people. You then decide to cancel and ask to reschedule the dinner. You have thoughts like “I’m such a horrible friend,” and “I’m so ridiculous”.
Find the evidence for the thought.
Ask yourself, "Why is this thought true?" This exercise should only include factual evidence as to why your thought is true. When looking at the example from above, can you come up with a fact about why "I'm such a horrible friend" is a true statement? If no, move to the next paragraph and ask yourself what the evidence is that thought is not true.
Find the evidence against for the thought.
Still using the example above, finding evidence why this thought isn't true is typically the hardest. It forces yourself to think about the thought from a different lens or perspective. Some facts why "I'm such a horrible friend" isn't true could be the following:
When the negative thoughts keep reoccurring, the first step, again, is to notice that they are there. Once you've gone through the steps above, identify a more helpful thought such as, "I know I'm a good friend because I've spent time with them recently and have been with them through many hard things." Doing this for each negative thought will allow you to see it from a different perspective, even if you don't believe it 100%. There was a time when we were young where we didn't believe every negative thing about us. We believe what we continue to tell ourselves so once you start speaking kindly, you will start to notice a shift in perspective and in the way you see yourself in the eyes of other people,
Use this replacement thought each time you have the guilt-based thought.
Repetition is going to be key, especially for the thoughts that are deep in your core. Catching yourself in negative thought cycles will help relieve guilt by rationalizing the thought and really making yourself think about whether it's your perception or if there are facts backing up your thinking.
Being aware of your thoughts and learning how to change them can prevent the behaviors and symptoms that stem from repetitive unhealthy guilt. Guilt is acknowledging that your behaviors aren't aligning with the way you want to live or what you know is right. With guilt, you are then able to change your behavior and become a better version of yourself, if you choose to. Unhealthy guilt, however, is based on negative perceptions of self and can turn into shame really quickly.
If you struggle with unhealthy guilt or negative thought cycles that prevent you from enjoying things in life, making changes, or moving forward in many areas, seeing a counselor or coach may be a next step.
Robin Helget, LMSW, CPT
Therapist. Millennial. Social Worker. Dog Mom. Friend. Sister. Empath. INFJ. Lover of ice cream.