How Distraction Worsens Anxiety (And How You Can Cope)


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With mental health at an all time low, it’s important to take into account what can make depression and anxiety worse rather than better. Understanding the complexities of mental health and recognizing what’s wrong can be a great step in finding a solution to whatever you’re going through.

Many people who suffer from anxiety, specifically, will try to distract themselves from their negative thoughts. However, this has turned out to actually make anxiety worse rather than better.

Thankfully, there are other methods of coping with anxiety available to you besides pretending your anxiety simply doesn’t exist.

Distraction and Anxiety

Distraction will have a negative impact on anxiety, not a positive one. When trying to take your mind off of it, you actually might end up making your anxiety worse. But why is this?

Well, first of all, ignoring your anxious thoughts will encourage the untrue belief that these thoughts are dangerous when they’re not, at least not by themselves. Actions are what can be dangerous, and the negative thoughts associated with anxiety shouldn’t be treated as something taboo or swept under the rug.

Thinking your thoughts are dangerous on their own can have a really harmful effect on your mental state, as your own thoughts may seem like they’re betraying you. This will likely only add to your discomfort.

While accidental distractions may help with your negative feelings short-term when it comes to anxiety, a lot of activities you may use in order to deliberately distract yourself may be harmful.

For example, trying not to think specific thoughts will inevitably result in you thinking them more. It will keep your attention focused there even as you’re actively trying to avoid the thoughts, so it’s very counterproductive.

An image of a woman sitting at a desk with a laptop open in front of her. She has her hands pressed to her temples and looks distressed as she looks at the screen. A pen, papers, glasses, and a cup of coffee sit beside her.
It can be incredibly difficult to push through your day and complete all your work when struggling with anxiety, but that’s what a lot of people still do, trying to push the negative thoughts away. However, this will typically just make the negative thoughts associated with anxiety worse. Image courtesy of AndresPira.

In addition, distractions other than thought-based ones can also worsen your anxiety— after all, if you’re using something to avoid the problem, then the problem won’t actually get solved.

When you begin to feel anxious, your brain may seem to insist you do something to take your mind off of it, but choosing these distractions rather than coping can create some not so good habits— habits that you’ll keep coming back to rather than facing your anxiety.

Some popular distracting activities that people do are going on their phone to check social media, grabbing a snack, or watching Netflix. These mindless types of activities will make you feel better in the short-term.

But long-term they only help contribute to the vicious cycle of anxiety, because you’ll eventually need more and more of these things in order to have the desired positive effect.

Doing something to take your mind off of your anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when these activities stop feeling rewarding it should be taken as a sign to stop.

A person in a yellow hoodie is holding an open phone, their thumbs hovering over the keyboard.
Social media has been found to have a negative impact on mental health generally speaking, and so resorting to it as a way to distract oneself from anxiety isn’t the best idea. There are plenty of other, healthier coping mechanisms available to you. Image courtesy of HelpGuide.

It’s also important to avoid becoming dependent on alcohol or other substances in order to feel better, because that in particular is a bad habit that can become very dangerous very quickly— and it’s even harder to break out of.

The most important thing to do, at the end of the day, is to make sure you know your own mind. Don’t become dependent on your distractions.

Effects of Anxiety

Anxiety itself can be incredibly harmful, and it can manifest in many different ways. Social anxiety, panic attacks, GAD, PTSD, OCD— all of these are different forms of anxiety that all have different symptoms associated with them.

While your body is equipped to handle the stressful symptoms associated with anxiety on the short-term as reactions to danger, dealing with anxiety long-term can have a negative impact physically as well as mentally.

Anxiety can lead to more health concerns because of how your body physically reacts to it. For example, it can drive your hormones levels up as well as your nervous system, which will release cortisol to increase your sugar levels.

A little cortisol can be a good thing. A lot of it, or too much of it, can lead to physical concerns such as problems concentrating or remembering things, trouble with sleeping and digestion, high blood pressure, a less effective immune system, and even heart attacks in some cases.

The symptoms that anxiety itself brings with it are also a very serious matter. These include —  but are not limited to — constant feelings of worry or dread, difficulty relaxing or thinking clearly, feeling hopeless, and frequent thoughts of danger or death.

An image of a woman having a panic attack. She is sitting curled up on the floor with her hair bunched up in her fists, obscuring her face.
Panic attacks, or sudden and intense feelings of doom or fear, are commonly associated with anxiety and depression. They can result in increased heart rate, sweating, and shortness of breath. Image courtesy of healthline.

If anxiety is left untreated or undiagnosed, your brain can be physically affected by the symptoms— the parts of your brain where these anxious feelings register may actually shrink in size, which will make you more prone to anxiety and add to the negative thoughts you’re already struggling with.

For this reason, if you think you or a loved one may have anxiety, it’s important that you recognize it rather than distracting yourself from it, and see a mental health professional who can help you to overcome your anxiety or at least make it more manageable.

There are, however, also a lot of things that you personally can do to decrease the negative feelings that are associated with anxiety in a healthy way.

Coping with Anxiety

Finding healthy coping mechanisms to help deal with your anxiety can be invaluable. Seeing a mental health professional may help you develop some that are specific to you and your anxiety, but here are a few broad, simple ways to get started!

For starters, taking good care of your body is an absolute must, and it can actually help decrease your feelings of anxiety. You should make sure you’re always having three balanced meals a day, and avoid things like caffeine or alcohol that can worsen your anxiety.

Creating an exercise routine can help you feel good both mentally and physically, though remember not to overwork yourself— that can have the opposite effect. It can also help provide some structure.

It’s also absolutely essential that you get enough sleep, especially when you’re feeling stressed.

When it comes to actually experiencing anxiety, particularly panic attacks, breathing exercises may become your best friend to help calm you down. Taking deep breaths and counting slowly to ten may do wonders.

An image of several people laying on yoga mats on a wooden floor, their arms resting at their sides and their eyes closed in meditation.
A lot of relaxation techniques are said to help with anxiety or negative thoughts. This can include yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. Sometimes, a combination of all three. Image courtesy of iStock.

You should also try and embrace a positive attitude, which may sound impossible, but it can really work! Even if you don’t believe them at first, thinking positive thoughts can help get rid of the negative ones!

You should also let yourself laugh and have a good time. It’s the best way to fight anxiety— some people have found success in making fun of the anxious thoughts themselves, especially if those thoughts don’t have anything to do with an actual problem you’re experiencing.

It can aid in overcoming said thoughts to maybe think them in a funny accent or turn them into a song or poem. If you do this, the thoughts caused by your anxiety may seem a whole lot less serious.

That said, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re doing your best. Don’t beat yourself up for having a bad day, and make sure to put things in perspective once in a while. Things really might not be so bad if you take a second to look at them objectively!

You should also try and learn what triggers you have— what causes your anxiety. That way, maybe you can take steps to avoid them.

There are also steps you can take to stop distracting yourself from anxiety in intentional, harmful ways. Think about your thoughts, and about why you’re having them. Analyze your anxious feelings rather than running away from them, and you may actually find a solution!

The best solution, however, is still talking to someone. Speaking with a mental health professional should always be encouraged, but if you don’t feel comfortable with that then at least consider speaking with a friend or family member about your anxiety. Chances are that they’ll want to help you.

It’s just as important to have a good support system as it is to have successful coping mechanisms, and bottling things up or relying on distractions will only add to your anxiety.

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