Anxious Behaviors

Jennifer Foust, PhD, MS, LPC, Director of Clinical Services

Posted by: Jennifer Foust, PhD, MS, LPC
Director of Clinical Services
2672628515

Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes and exhibits anxious behaviors. Anxiety is a natural human emotion.  In fact, experiencing anxiety is important for our survival. It lets us know when we are in danger and alerts us to take action. However, we can experience anxiety even if we know that we really aren’t in danger. For example, if we had a car accident, the next time we get behind the wheel of a car, we will likely feel anxious.  Our brain remembers that dangerous event and alerts us the next time we are in a similar circumstance which in this case if being behind the wheel of a car. Sometimes feeling anxious seems to happen for no reason or the reason that you are feeling anxious doesn’t make any sense. In any of these situations, certain behaviors can keep anxiety going and make it worse, such as worrying. When you think of anxious behaviors, you may at first think of nail biting, leg shaking, finger tapping, etc. While these are indeed anxious behaviors, this tip will cover more cognitive behaviors. These cognitive behaviors seem like they might help but they actually keep feeding the anxiety especially if they are repeated over and over.  Below are some very common anxious behaviors with examples. Many of the behaviors overlap.

  1. Worrying - Worry can be described as thinking about your concerns or troubles over and over again. Specifically, a person is thinking about a bad outcome that could occur and what could potentially be done to prevent it. Sometimes a person may just dwell on a bad outcome and not even think about ways to prevent it or solve. It is important to discuss productive versus unproductive worry.  Productive worry is when you identify a problematic situation that has a solution and you are considering your options. So basically, it is a problem that concerns you and you are thinking about how to solve it. For example, maybe you have to get your car fixed and you are thinking about the best way to pay for it and the best time to take it to get repaired. You could be concerned about how to pay for it and when to take your car to get fixed but you are able to make a plan and move on. Unproductive worrying is thinking about a situation that is unknown and is out of your control. It may happen or it may not. A good way to identify unproductive worry is by the two words what if. What if I fail my final?  What if my husband leaves me? What if I get cancer? While any of these what ifs could happen, worrying about if they could especially if they are out of your control does not help you solve or prepare for them. All it does is increase your anxiety. You can prepare and take some action but the rest is unknown.
  2. Asking or Looking for Reassurance - This behavior seems harmless enough and all of us ask for reassurance from time to time. It creates anxiety when you are asking or looking for reassurance about something that is unknown.  A simple example is having a physical symptom and googling to diagnose yourself. Now, probably most people have done that before. The difference is that the person with anxiety will spend hours googling symptoms or will visit a few doctors to get reassurance that they don’t have some disease.  And because it is unknown, which is what is so scary, a person with anxiety will dwell on the negative answers they find and worry about them. Checking is also a behavior that fits into reassurance. For example, you check your locks several times to make sure you locked them because you need to reassure yourself that you are safe.
  3. Rehearsing/Perfectionism - This behavior can occur when you have decided how you are going to handle a situation but keep rehearsing it in your head. The rehearsal is often about trying to be certain that your solution is a good one and/or trying to find a problem with it that will cause a bad outcome and then preparing for addressing said bad outcome. For example, you have a fight with a good friend and you want to resolve it. You decide what you are going to say and how you are going to handle it. You then rehearse that conversation over and over looking for possible problems and ways the person could respond to prepare for the worst.  Rehearsal can also take the form of being perfect, where you go over and over something such as report to make sure that it says exactly what you want and is interpreted exactly how you want.
  4. Avoidance - This behavior is simply avoiding the thing or situation that creates anxiety. While it may seem that it will reduce anxiety, it really only does it in the short term, unless it is something that you can avoid easily (e.g. you are scared of lizards and you live in a place where there are no lizards). For example, you have anxiety about social situations.  Social situations are a regular part of life and you will likely encounter them regularly. Trying to avoid them will create more anxiety because you will frequently encounter their possibility.

In order to begin managing your anxiety it is important to develop awareness of these behaviors in order to work on changing them.  Once you are aware of them, you can choose to engage in the behavior. Making a choice to not engage in the behavior can feel impossible, but it is possible by distracting yourself and/or switching your focus to something else. If you need help in recognizing if you exhibit these behaviors, call 215-922-5683 to schedule an appointment.