6 ‘Soothing’ Activities That Are Secretly Causing You More Anxiety

Relying on too many outside opinions can create more stress rather than less.

When you’re overwhelmed with stress, you may feel like curling up in a ball and not know how to pull yourself out of the funk. From watching hours and hours of TV to pretending the stress isn’t there, there are common “soothing” behaviors that we do to unwind that can cause more harm than good.

“I do things that exacerbate my stress,” Niro Feliciano, a psychotherapist and author, told HuffPost. “And I know that I’m doing them, but it’s natural as humans.”

Even therapists can fall into these stress traps, she said. But if we work on how we handle stress even just 50% of the time, it can drastically help.

We asked therapists about the one thing that they try to avoid for relieving stress because it can actually aggravate tension — and what they try to do instead.

1. ‘Binging’ On TV Or Shopping

“The one thing I try my hardest not to do when I’m stressed is get stuck in patterns of binging anything — Netflix, retail therapy, junk food, etc.,” Sadaf Siddiqi, a psychotherapist and content creator, told HuffPost. “As humans, we all need occasional moments of escape and indulgence, but this is not the same as creating coping mechanisms out of them.”

These types of behaviors are often a form of avoiding emotions, which can lead to even more stress.

“Research shows that suppressing … difficult thoughts for long periods of time can lead to poor mental health as well as physical health,” Siddiqi explained. “Strong emotions need to be felt, processed and managed.”

Instead of binging something, Siddiqi tries to focus on techniques that immediately relieve stress, such as going for a walk, dancing to a playlist or talking to a friend. Another option is to use breathing exercises, like breathing in through the nose, holding it, exhaling through the nose, and repeating until you feel a shift. Even taking a quick shower may help; warm water can relax your muscles and reduce tension, while cold water can improve your circulation and lower cortisol levels.

For long-term stress management, Siddiqi recommended creating a routine that includes movement, healthy sleep, meditation, whole foods, hydration and therapy.

2. Telling Yourself To Stop Thinking ‘Bad’ Thoughts

“When I have catastrophic thoughts that something will turn out really badly … I do not avoid these thoughts,” said Calvin Fitch, a licensed clinical health psychologist.

He said this can lead to the “pink elephant problem,” in which a thought becomes more intense because you’re trying to avoid it. (For example, if you’re asked not to think about pink elephants for 30 seconds, it’s difficult to avoid.)

Alternatively, Fitch likes to imagine his thoughts as “boxes on a conveyor belt” that he can choose to open or not.

“When a catastrophic thought has no evidence to support it and/or there’s nothing I can do [about it] right now, I let that box pass because I know opening it and sifting through the contents is not useful and actually prevents other thoughts or boxes from passing,” he said.

Learning not to overcontrol your thoughts doesn’t just relieve stress, but can also help with mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder, according to Fitch.

3. Asking Lots Of People For Their Opinions

“Sometimes when we’re facing a challenge, our tendency is to want … to consult [with other] people about it [and] get all sorts of opinions and feedback,” explained Tamika Lewis, the clinical director and founder of Women of Color Therapy. “And sometimes that can actually complicate things.”

Getting lots of different advice from others can distract from what you’re actually feeling. Instead, Lewis tries to sit in silence with the feeling and listen to what’s coming up in her body.

“I try … to trust that body wisdom, which usually is a better guide than other folks’ input,” she said. “It takes a lot of discipline to be still, but there’s a lot of wisdom in stillness and silence.”

She said it can also be helpful to let out stressful energy by moving the body, whether that’s through breath work, stretching or walking. “Usually that will lead you to more clarity than just stagnating,” she said.

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Relying on too many outside opinions can create more stress rather than less.

4. Listening To White Noise

“For me, [white noise] causes my anxiety to increase,” said Priya Tahim, a licensed professional counselor and the founder of Kaur Counseling. “I find that the sounds leave my thoughts spiraling, almost like my thoughts are on a caffeine kick.”

Though white noise can help some people unwind when used with meditation, others may find its higher-pitched frequencies too stimulating, according to Tahim.

She prefers to listen to her “calm” playlist, which includes “songs with a mellow or romantic vibe” and allows her brain to relax. Listening to music with slow, calming tempos can help physically relax and quiet the mind, she explained.

5. Saying ‘Yes’ To Additional Tasks As A Distraction

“When I’m stressed, I [try to] never take on additional things,” Feliciano shared. “When we begin to say ‘yes’ to things that we don’t have time for or don’t have the emotional or mental bandwidth for, we … start to feel resentful.”

This can increase stress levels and cause more anxiety, panic and depressive symptoms, she said. Instead, Feliciano focuses on setting firm boundaries and prioritizing.

“I start to say ‘no’ to the things that are nonessential,” she said. “I look at things that can be postponed and delayed and make more bandwidth in my life for self-care. … If we don’t intentionally make time for self-care, no one has time for it.”

For her, self-care can include walking with a friend, spending time in nature, meditating or practicing deep breathing (even just for five or 10 minutes a day).

As for the tasks that she needs to get done, she makes lists to rank them in order of priority. This helps organize her thoughts and reduce the pressure of remembering them.

“When we’re stressed, we’re in fight-or-flight mode and … our cognitive abilities become impaired,” Feliciano explained. “We actually use a lot of neurological energy just to remember a list. And when we write it down on a piece of paper, that energy can be directed to actually doing the thing.”

6. Ignoring The Stress Or Pretending It’s Not There

“Avoidance never works. It just compounds the situation,” Jeffrey Barnett, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland, told HuffPost.

Barnett has found that pushing through stress like it’s not there only makes it worse. Alternatively, he tries to give himself permission to take a break to do something relaxing or rejuvenating.

He also emphasized the importance of stress prevention practices, like exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, getting adequate rest and not being too hard on yourself.

Leanna Stockard, a licensed marriage and family therapist at LifeStance Health, agreed that the longer she ignores her stress, the more it lingers in the back of her mind.

“Even the ‘smallest’ things [begin] to feel overwhelming,” she said. “This [leads] to a cycle of continued procrastination and amplified stress, until [I’m] at my breaking point and [need] to address it.”

Instead, she tries to acknowledge her feelings and identify if she’s able to control any of her stressors (for example, by taking smaller steps toward a larger goal). For stressors that are beyond her control, she uses coping skills like deep breathing and journaling.

The Most Important Thing: Find What Works Best For You

Siddiqi pointed out that managing your stress may require some trial and error. Just because a technique is effective for someone else doesn’t mean that it will work for you. The best thing you can do is to try new practices until you identify ones that are the most calming for you.

“Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Siddiqi said. “As human beings, we are not meant to heal alone.”

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