Anxiety brings with it a host of behaviors that can become disruptive to your life or health. Obsessive compulsive-type habits like checking and re-checking the locks on the door. Eating disorders. Picking at skin or pulling out eyelashes. Nail-biting. Cutting. The list goes on.
People sometimes come to therapy to change these behaviors. Often, clients describe the behavior as something that originated during a time of stress or trauma, as a way to cope. Somehow, anxiety is released and that overwhelming feeling is at bay for a little while. Then the cycle starts up again and so does the behavior. The person ends up feeling even more stress and lack of control over a habit that started out, perhaps, as a coping mechanism.
I see quite a few people who work their way through to eliminating unhealthy behaviors. This is not an easy task and it can take a long time to break old habits. Let’s talk about what happens when a behavior like cutting is eliminated. Given that every person still experiences varying degrees of anxiety, without the coping mechanism, where does the anxiety go? Does it magically disappear along with the problematic behavior? The answer is no. Anxiety is part of life. It does not go away. But you can find new ways to cope that will make life much more enjoyable.
When dealing with an anxiety-related behavior like those listed above, the key is to substitute new beliefs and behaviors for the ones that were not working. Anxiety and stress are bound to rear their heads in all of our lives. If you were a nail-biter, for example, what can you do when feeling stressed out?
The key is to do something. Anxiety does not just melt away on its own. Without learning new, preferred behaviors to cope with stress, anxiety will find its way into another part of your life in order to “help” you cope. Perhaps you will begin self-medicating. You could experience physical symptoms from swallowing those stressful feelings. You may find yourself snapping at those around you, feeling more irritated and annoyed than usual.
Here are some ideas for new, healthy ways of coping with anxiety after you have conquered a behavior that you felt was unhealthy or disruptive to your life:
- Talk to someone you trust. Keeping feelings bottled up inside creates pressure and more stress. You can talk to a trusted friend, a family member, or see a therapist. What matters is that you feel safe and accepted by this person.
- Journal. Write down your feelings in the form of a diary, blog, symptoms log, or even poetry or fiction. As #1, getting the feelings out is key. You can keep what you write private or share it with someone you trust. If you are in counseling, your therapist may even ask you to journal as part of your treatment.
- Exercise. As long as your health allows it, get moving. Exercise in whatever way feels good to you. Anything from running to yoga to dancing. Move your body and release healthy brain chemicals and relieve stress.
- Get enough sleep. Do you fall asleep easily? Do you stay asleep, or do you wake every couple of hours? Insomnia or not sleeping enough increases stress and reduces your ability to cope with daily life.
- Nutrition. Maintaining a balanced diet, a healthy weight, and getting adequate nutrients are ways you can take care of yourself, even in times of stress.
- The Mind-Body connection: Anxiety affects the body. People under stress report headaches, stomach pain, fatigue, and many other physical symptoms. Taking care of your mind means also taking care of your body.
- Relax. I say this a lot, and often the answer is “But I don’t know how!” So we start with lying flat and doing progressive relaxation exercises, stretching, and identifying ways to incorporate relaxing activities into your lifestyle. Yoga, Tai Chi, prayer, listening to calming music or nature sounds, and meditation are all ways to relax the mind and body.
If you have said goodbye to a destructive habit, you deserve congratulations! You also deserve to feel good in your everyday life. I hope some of these ideas will help you on your journey.