Everyone has a different “default” way of coping with anxiety – and many of us will experience a shift from one extreme of the spectrum to the other at least once during our lifetime. While our culture praises the “brave” approach and shames the avoidant, the extremes of both approaches are equally harmful ways of avoiding the discomfort of being present to the tension of the middle ground. In this middle space – where we feel our fear but choose to tolerate some discomfort in order to grow – we inhabit our bodies, we have self-compassion for ourselves, and let ourselves experience the emotions inherent in doing things that are really, really hard.
After watching someone I love shrink into a world that grew smaller and smaller through efforts to avoid anxiety triggers, I was convinced for a time that the only way to deal with my own anxiety was to cut off my capacity to hear anxiety’s voice and force myself into the heart of the things I feared most. What I learned, after experiencing the pain of crashing headlong into the things that scared me most, is that both extremes are ways of coping with anxiety that can have painful consequences.
Healthy coping with anxiety means finding the right balance between exposure, support, and self-compassion – and that’s really hard to do all alone. If you are working through anxiety, tell someone and ask for help (or for help with getting professional help).
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What is the Spectrum of Coping with Anxiety?
Coping with anxiety is not a linear experience. Different symptoms or instances of anxiety may produce a different level of felt anxiety, which then signals our body and emotions to react to different degrees. Coping with anxiety is considered a spectrum because there are differing degrees of embracing symptoms of anxiety that can be helpful or unhelpful to a certain extent.
The illustration above describes this anxiety spectrum. Ideally, we should aim to stay in the middle of this spectrum, somewhere between the yellow sections, with the green “growth zone” being the goal. If our idea of “coping” keeps us in the red zones (either through avoiding the anxiety altogether, or approaching it in a way that pushes a person beyond their ability to emotionally regulate and adapt in a healthy way) we aren’t actually coping, and may be setting psychological and biochemical reactions in place that have the potential to worsen anxiety symptoms.
In 2005, researchers from the University of Texas and the VA hypothesized that coping styles and symptoms have a reciprocal relationship, and that symptoms of anxiety and cognitive avoidance have a reciprocal relationship. In layman’s terms, avoiding anxiety provoking situations (what researchers call cognitive avoidance) does help in the short-term to avoid unpleasant feelings. However, this process can, in the long-term, increase symptoms of anxiety. This research suggests that finding a way to create proactive or “approach” coping can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety in the long run.
Strategies for Coping with Anxiety:
The first step toward healthy coping is to notice the ways we might be coping that actually aren’t good for us. The second is to understand that our brain’s messages of anxiety are actually telling us something, so instead of ignoring and silencing those messages, we may benefit from attempting to understand them and finding a way to navigate through, accepting the realities they may be showing us and identifying where the narrative may need to be adapted.
Many studies reflect the helpfulness of social support, spirituality, or other positive connections or practices. For example, one study of children employed a CBT intervention program to help promote cognitive restructuring (think: reframing our thoughts about anxious feelings in a way that makes it easier to approach those feelings) as adaptive coping strategies, which helped reduce anxiety.
Additionally, a study that explored anxiety in transgender individuals reached conclusions that support similar strategies for coping with anxiety and managing where we fall on the anxiety spectrum. They found that the best mental health outcomes occurred in response to increasing social support and decreasing the amount of time and effort spent avoiding anxiety triggers. Of note, researchers pointed out that different stages in the transition of gender shift will call for different levels of intervention/strategies.
These studies may be applicable to other social-identity groups experiencing identity-related anxiety, as well as anyone who may have maladaptive coping processes. Note that coping strategies are not a one-size-fits-all. For some situations, one anxiety spectrum coping method might be really helpful, while the same situation could be unhelpful in other instances or for other people. For example: breathing techniques may help some people cope well with intense anxiety, while another person (or even the same person, at a different time) may be better served through medication and/or therapy to handle anxiety.
Listing to our brain and body’s cues and advocating for the care that we need is a way to take good care our ourselves and our anxiety.
A few research-supported at-home strategies for coping with anxiety symptoms include:
- Try breathing exercises
- Mindfulness exercises like this illustrated one
- Flip through an anxiety-soothing card deck of body-based grounding exercises
- Do a guided meditation
- Drink enough water and enjoy nutritional balance
- Notice how caffeine and alcohol impact anxiety symptoms, and adjust your use as appropriate.
- Try to get plenty of sleep (here’s a fun flow chart to help troubleshoot your sleep hygiene)
- Move your body (you can try yoga, aerobic exercise, or even just a walk around your block)
- Practice self-compassion
- Reach for skin-to-skin contact with a partner, or skin-to-fur contact with a pet. According to researchers, both can help brains release chemicals that soothe anxiety.
If your feelings of anxiety are invasive enough to make it hard to handle normal daily functioning, it may be appropriate to seek further help. Click here for resources to find treatment.
Image description for screen readers
Title reads, “Spectrum of anxiety coping.”
Underneath, a spectrum is drawn. There is red on the extreme ends of the spectrum with labels that say, “Danger!”
The red spectrum end on the left has text underneath that says, “Shaping life to avoid triggers.”
The other red spectrum, on the right, has text underneath that says, “Self-harm via over-exposure.”
Next to the red ends of the spectrum are orange and yellow blocks, with a green block in the middle labeled, “Growth Zone,” where the dial is.