I, along with approximately 40 million other adults in the U.S., suffer from anxiety. It’s gotten way worse this year for reasons I never saw coming (ahem, invisible deathly virus), and my number-one technique for dealing with it is to practice emotional dumping by unloading my anxious thoughts onto the people I love. All day, every day, and usually via text.
Some of these lucky people have drawn boundaries with me around this behavior, while others just kindly deal with it. Fairly boilerplate responses, like “You’re not alone in this feeling” or “Your brain is just telling you stories that aren’t based on reality,” usually help me, but even a simple heart emoji will do. TBH, even if a bot were responding to me, I’d probably continue on with my emotional dumping, which begs the question: What is this specific coping mechanism is even doing for me? Is it actually alleviating my anxiety, or just potentially alienating my friends?
In exploring this question, clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, notes first and foremost that the desire to offload anxious thoughts and feelings makes total sense. “When we keep anxiety locked up inside, it’s much like a boiling teakettle that has no way to let off steam—an explosion can occur,” she says. To prevent this from happening, Dr. Manly suggests using safe and reliable strategies to release the energy, bit by bit, so it doesn’t build up. And while there’s nothing wrong with venting to a friend on occasion, doing so constantly can exhaust their resources.
“Although talking and venting can be temporarily cathartic, it’s also important to process one’s thoughts and feelings to create greater self-awareness.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
Finding alternative coping mechanisms to emotional dumping can help to protect your friendships, but arguably more importantly, the other strategies may actually be effective. “Although talking and venting can be temporarily cathartic, it’s also important to process one’s thoughts and feelings to create greater self-awareness,” Dr. Manly says. “And after gaining increased awareness, it’s vital to take actionable steps to create change.” Long-term catharsis, she adds, requires insight, mind-set shifts, and action-oriented change.
This can be accomplished in any number of ways that don’t lead your friends to avoid your calls. “There’s no one perfect answer about how to get anxiety out,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus. “You might need to try different things and then check in with yourself to see how it worked.” Both pros recommend more effective—and less annoying—coping mechanisms to try out below.
Below, find 11 coping mechanisms for anxiety that don’t involve emotional dumping on your friends.
Instead of essentially live-blogging the happenings of your internal world to friends via text, write them down in a diary instead. “When you journal specifically to reduce anxiety, you allow yourself to vent without judgment about whatever is on your mind,” says Dr. Manly. “When you let your anxious energy and thoughts flow onto paper without being self-critical, you give your anxiety a safe place to rest.”
“Meditating is another terrific strategy that is free, portable, and easy to do,” says Dr. Manly. “Whether you meditate for five minutes or a half-hour, sitting quietly with yourself—and allowing anxious thoughts to float by as if they are clouds in the sky—trains the mind to be more detached and less fearful.” Need a little help? These five meditation apps are free.
3. Breathe with intention
Engaging in breathwork designed to calm the mind is another effective way to reduce anxious thoughts. “When you focus on your inhalation (as you count to four) and then on your exhalation (again counting to four), your mind is so focused on the counting and breathing that it lets go of anxiety,” says Dr. Manly. You can get deeper with this practice, too.
4. Get physically stronger
Physical activity can serve as an effective anxiety outlet for some people as well. “Anxiety involves a belief that you’re weak or not good enough, so exercise that makes you feel strong makes sense,” says Dr. Daramus.
5. Adopt an anchoring mantra
It might also help to adopt a positive message or mantra that feels strong and calming for you, says Dr. Manly. For example: “All will be well. All will be good. Things will work out.” She recommends keeping a copy in your wallet, on your mirror, and on your desk. “Repeat the mantra or phrase when you are calm and relaxed,” she says. “Your brain will come to associate the gentle, supportive words with a positive, relaxed state.” You might want to press a specific finger or place on your hand as you repeat the mantra, as Dr. Manly says this can have an anchoring effect. “At the slightest hint of anxiety or stress, repeat the mantra or phrase,” she advises.
Similarly, she recommends adopting a positive phrase that can help you combat negative self-talk running on loop in your head. For example: “I am a wonderful and valuable person with a good, caring heart.” When the critical voice in your head makes itself heard, Dr. Manly suggests noticing it without judgment. “Then imagine taking out the old tape and inserting a fresh, positive one that offers positive, uplifting thoughts,” she says. As with the calming mantra, it might be helpful to post your positive phrase in various places around the house. “The more you use your positive self-talk tape, the more you will erase the negative, critical voice,” she says.
6. Adopt a pet
“Pets are great for anxiety,” says Dr. Daramus. And they can help with overall emotional well-being, too. A 2016 survey by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute found that pet owners saw reduced stress and depression and an increase in a sense of well-being. (Bonus points if they’re your astrological soul mate.)
7. Jam out
Dr. Daramus also recommends turning to music for comfort in anxious moments; however, it’s important to note that this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. “Some people need soft, calming music, other people need hard rock or a good jam,” she says.
8. Get arty
“Any kind of creative art that expresses your worries could help,” says Dr. Daramus. This includes art-lite options like coloring books, DIY friendship-bracelets, or freestyle dancing.
9. Borrow from your idols
It can be helpful to have a role model who you think is good in a crisis to use as your anti-anxiety model. “The goal would be to help you get into a more effective mind-set by asking, ‘What would [Star Wars Jedi] Ahsoka Tano do?’”
10. Acknowledge that, for some, anxiety changed in 2020
“Dealing with anxiety is different than it was a few months ago, because therapy often focused on why your anxieties are irrational or exaggerated,” says Dr. Daramus. “Now there’s less of that, and more people are coming into therapy for realistic anxiety.”
This means it’s not always going to be effective to try talking yourself out of irrational anxiety, because the threats your brain perceives are real. Dr. Daramus instead suggests writing out a crisis plan so you’ll have an easy reference for what to do if something bad happens. “When anxiety starts to rise, you can glance over the plan to remind yourself that you’ve got this handled,” she says.
In many cases, the situations being dealt with at present are novel, meaning we have no prior experience to inform our reactions to them. “Be gentle with yourself about the things you don’t know,” she says. “You can also try to learn and build skills in areas where you feel inadequate.” For example, you could work on budgeting if you’re worried about losing your job or unemployment benefits in the rocky months ahead.
11. Keep emotional dumping, but don’t forget to return the favor
You may still need to vent to a friend from time to time, and Dr. Daramus says there’s nothing wrong with that; however, she advises paying them back with a welcome ear when they’d benefit from emotional dumping. “Don’t forget to return the favor if they need it so that they don’t start avoiding you,” she says. Noted.