By Lindsay Hildebrand
Anxiety is a natural response to stress or danger. It’s our body’s way of preparing for a perceived threat. However, when anxiety becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can take a significant toll on our mental and physical health. It is important to keep in mind that anxiety isn’t really a choice. Anxiety is a reaction to experiences in our environment that results in physical changes in the body and brain. These changes can eventually result in a change in the physical size of brain structures. This isn’t because our brains are “messed up” or “gone haywire.” These changes are the result of our brain adapting to consistent and predictable elements in our world. If you live in Alberta and you drive between Edmonton and Calgary often, your brain will begin to predict the change in weather (particularly during our Alberta winters) right around Red Deer. (High five if you have experienced the ever present “it’s suddenly a snow storm just outside of Red Deer). This prediction will prepare you to be more vigilant, alert, and ready for danger. This is called anxiety.
Self-criticism, on the other hand, is the habit of being overly harsh and judgmental toward oneself. It often involves a constant inner dialogue of self-blame, self-doubt, and self-evaluation. While some level of self-reflection is healthy, self-criticism can become destructive when it’s relentless and unforgiving. Some theories of psychology such as Internal Family Systems understand self-criticism or negative self-talk as a novel way of self-preservation. The understanding goes like this: if you talk down to yourself, you are more likely to not take risks, avoid being unique and/or different, or even make mistakes. Self-criticism attempts to keep us in line, safe, and more like everyone else. However, this is a maladaptive coping mechanism with many negative consequences and it can even stop us from growing and discovering new potential in our lives. With enough experience, we believe we can outgrow our self-criticism, but this is often not the case. Negative beliefs and phrases about ourselves from our childhood can often stick around and become extra sharp as we age into adulthood.
The Connection Between Anxiety and Self-Criticism
Negative Self-Talk: Anxiety often triggers a barrage of negative thoughts. We may worry about the future, dwell on past mistakes, or fear the unknown. These negative thought patterns are closely related to self-criticism. Anxiety amplifies self-critical inner dialogue, leading to a vicious cycle of self-doubt.
Perfectionism: Anxiety can drive perfectionistic tendencies. We set unattainable standards for ourselves, and when we inevitably fall short, self-criticism takes center stage. The fear of not meeting these self-imposed standards fuels our anxiety.
Rumination: Both anxiety and self-criticism are fueled by rumination. We replay our past mistakes, worries, and self-critical thoughts over and over in our minds. This constant rumination exacerbates both anxiety and self-criticism.
Social Anxiety: Self-criticism often leads to social anxiety. When we are harshly critical of ourselves, we may fear judgment and rejection from others. Social situations become a source of anxiety and stress.
Self-Worth and Anxiety: A negative self-image, a byproduct of self-criticism, is often a significant contributor to anxiety. When we don’t believe in our own worth or capabilities, we are more likely to experience anxiety.
Breaking the Cycle
The good news is that it’s possible to break free from the cycle of anxiety and self-criticism. Here are some strategies and tools to consider:
Self-Compassion: Practice self-compassion by treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer to a friend. Challenge self-criticism with compassionate self-talk.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is an evidence-based technique proven to be an effective anxiety therapy as it helps you recognize and reframe negative thought patterns. It equips you with tools to challenge irrational beliefs, reduce anxiety, and foster healthier self-perception.
Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness techniques can help you stay present and non-judgmental. This can reduce anxiety and diminish self-criticism by teaching you to observe your thoughts without getting entangled in them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT can be a great anxiety therapy as it encourages individuals to accept their thoughts and feelings without judgment and to commit to values-based actions. This can reduce the impact of self-criticism and anxiety in daily life.
Therapy: Seeking anxiety therapy, whether individual or group, can be a powerful step towards addressing both anxiety and self-criticism. A trained psychotherapist can provide guidance and support in navigating these challenges.
Self-Care: Engage in regular self-care practices. Prioritize activities that promote relaxation, reduce stress, and boost self-esteem. This can help counter the negative effects of anxiety and self-criticism.
The relationship between anxiety and self-criticism is complex, but with awareness and effort, it can be untangled. Remember that it’s okay to seek counseling services from a psychotherapist or registered psychologist. You don’t have to face these challenges alone. Breaking the cycle is possible, and a transformative step towards a more positive and self-affirming future.