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Anxiety Dumpers: How to Avoid Them (and Not Be One)

I was on Facebook recently, scrolling around, when a notification popped up from my neighborhood group. I clicked on it, curious, and read a post from a woman who just saw a man walk up to her front door and try to open it. She wrote, “Everyone, lock your doors and watch out.” I panicked, ran to my front door, peered out, leery, alert, waiting for the sound of a truck or a man’s footsteps. Seeing nothing, I looked back at the post again. Three people had commented already: What was he driving? Did you call the police? Which direction did he go? Riveted, my heart racing. I tried to stay calm, but paced to the front door again.

A car drove by slowly. I thought, “This is it.” My panic deflated when I saw the teenage girl from down the block. I waved. I checked back at the post to see what new comments had popped up, but the post was gone. Whoever had shared the warning deleted the comment. I was left hanging in fear and worry over this man just walking around, opening front doors. I fizzled and popped like a shaken bottle of coke with the cap still on. After several minutes of pacing, my anxiety started to simmer back down. I realized that despite being warned on Facebook that danger was coming my way, I was, in fact, completely fine. No one was trying to open my front door. But the damage had been done. I absorbed the anxiety from the stranger online. Now, it was mine, weighing on my shoulders like a heavy cloak.

It happens on social media all the time. Friends or strangers can unknowingly do this in conversation, and news stations seem to do this on purpose in their broadcasting to grab our attention. They spike our anxiety and create the illusion we are under a threat of some kind. People like to warn others when there is something to be scared about, and it works. They make me scared. And while some may think it’s helpful to know things going on in the world, the truth is we are dumping anxiety all over, and it’s spreading like wildfire.

An anxiety dumper is someone who offloads anxious feelings by raising someone else’s. They say, “Look, I am burning, and you will burn too!” Anxiety dumpers validate their anxiety by getting others to join them and diffuse their worry by sharing it. The catch is other people’s anxiety can be gripping. Like a thriller novel, we want to know how it ends. We get sucked in quickly. And it’s exhausting and toxic.

If you find yourself feeling anxious after a stint online, with a friend or watching the news, you are not alone. There are many positive facets of these outlets, so we can’t avoid them altogether. But here are three ways to stop creating new worries in your life that are entirely unnecessary and avoid the anxiety dumpers:

1. When you start to get sucked and feel your anxiety rising, tell yourself this:

This is not my circus. These are not my monkeys. Do not pick them up, and certainly don’t feed them. Leave them in their little red striped tents where they belong.

2. Prep yourself beforehand.

You’re only here to look, not buy. Like in a movie, the actors work to make you feel something, but you’re not part of the show. When it’s over, you stand up and walk away to do the dishes or pick your kids up from school. You clear your head, remembering you don’t have to live in someone else’s story.

3. Do not go deep into a thread for social media, and certainly don’t add your comment.

No matter how badly you want to tell Susan (whom you don’t know) about the seven articles you’ve recently read proving her wrong, nothing ever gets solved on Facebook. Nothing. Just move along.

If you have been using social media as an outlet to vent your anxious heart, here are three more tips:

1. Before posting, ask yourself what you need.

If you want company in your misery, try self-soothing techniques like positive self-talk, writing in a gratitude journal, or going for a walk. If you still need to vent after that, find one emotionally healthy person to talk to, like a friend or a therapist.

2. Are you looking for an answer to a dilemma?

Ask your question without slinging mud, pointing fingers, complaining, or blaming. It’s “dumping” and toxic to everyone.

3. Before you post anything, ask yourself these questions:

Is it helpful? Is it kind? Is it any of my business? If the answer to any of these is no, don’t post it, and don’t read it. Just don’t. Distract yourself with a good (fictional) book or dig into a new recipe for dinner to soothe your brain cells and return to the world inside your own life, not in cyberspace.

Lastly, if anxiety is plaguing you, regardless of your time on social media, here are a few final tips for calming the mental storm instead of dropping it like it’s hot online:

1. Count to 100 (and breathe).

Focusing on concrete numbers is grounding and pulls you out of emotional fight or flight mode.

2. Repeat a mantra to remember you are safe and in control.

Here is one I recommend, but feel free to come up with your own: “My worries are not in charge. I do not have to serve them.”

3. Make a list of three things you’re anxious about and why.

Naming the worries will help you externalize them, which means you can see them separate from yourself. Concerns sometimes seem smaller out in the open than they do in your mind.

4. Assess if there is a positive action you can take to ease your worries.

If there is, make a plan to do it. If there is not, and you can’t stop worrying, talk to a professional. Anxiety tells us we have something to fear, but it’s not always right. Sometimes, it’s a lie. An experienced therapist, counselor, or doctor can help.

Getty image by FluxFactory