When you accomplish something amazing ― like earning a promotion, finishing a yearslong passion project or finally paying off your credit card ― you’d think a burst of happiness would be followed by relief. Maybe even a dash of relaxation. Right?
Not for everyone. It’s actually not unusual to feel more anxious following good news or hard-earned success than you do when you’re putting out fires or working hard.
“Anxiety can be a bit tricky, as it’s a primitive response that’s hard-wired into the brain,” said Carla Marie Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear.” “The brain’s fear circuit works very quickly, and it doesn’t always pause to differentiate between good anxiety and bad.”
So, when something good happens, the physical symptoms you feel are similar to those that you associate with panic or fear, Manly said.
But even when you are able to distinguish between feelings of excitement (good stress) and panic (bad stress) following a dose of success, the climb down from Mount Euphoria can be an anxiety trigger in itself. When your body becomes accustomed to a chronic state of anxiety, the positive physiological changes that happen after good news can, paradoxically, trigger the sense that something isn’t right ― simply because you’re not used to feeling good. As a result, your body never fully lets go of its hypervigilant state, Manly said.
“The brain’s fear circuit works very quickly, and it doesn’t always pause to differentiate between good anxiety and bad.”
This reaction may also be exacerbated by an underlying belief that the good event will probably be followed by something bad ― perhaps because in your past, bad things that have happened to you often transpired when you were doing well or things were relatively calm, said Jo Eckler, a Texas-based licensed clinical psychologist and author of “I Can’t Fix You — Because You’re Not Broken.” Instead of enjoying the moment, you spend that time waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Anxiety can increase when good things happen for many other reasons too, like growing up in a family where success was met with resentment, ongoing experiences of losing things soon after you got them or feeling like a target once you have something to lose.
“We learn so much as children that we don’t even realize at the time,” Eckler said.
Fortunately, this is a learned way of thinking that can be managed. If your anxiety doesn’t seem to understand that it can clock out when things are going well, here are some expert-recommended mental exercises that can help:
Acknowledge that your anxiety is getting triggered
The first step to managing or eliminating your anxiety around good outcomes is firmly acknowledging that it happens in the first place.
“Once you come to notice that you’re triggered by good things, the element of surprise or avoidance is diminished or replaced by an attitude of acceptance,” Manly said.
You can further diffuse the situation by reminding yourself that what you’re feeling isn’t the same as fear-based anxiety ― it’s a sign that something amazing is happening, and you deserve to enjoy it. Heads up, though: It might take some time for this mode of thinking to become a natural reaction.
“It’s natural for the psyche to want to go back to old thought patterns, so this new one will take time and patience to become hard-wired into the brain,” Manly said.
Allow yourself to feel your anxiety
Instead of fighting the feeling of impending doom, dive into it just long enough to map out exactly what you would do if the worst-case scenario were to happen. So, for example, if you just got a stellar promotion and you’re anxious that others won’t be receptive or happy for you, think about how you’d talk to them about it or how you’d handle that situation if it happens.
“When we allow anxiety to fuel solutions, it tends to go away,” said Alicia Clark, a Washington-based licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Hack Your Anxiety.” Quickly putting a strategy together can give your worries the outlet they need to subside.
Slow down for a moment
When your body’s alarm system is activated, slowing down can signal your nervous system to chill out, Eckler said. For example, letting your eyes slowly roam around and notice hyperspecific details about your surroundings ― think the color of the chair you’re sitting in and the sounds you hear outside ― counteracts the tendency for our gaze to freeze when you’re on high alert. Gentle, slow movements of the body and deep breathing can help with this as well.
Expect — and take in — the good
Being more open to positive outcomes can reduce the likelihood that good things will feel like a mistake to your brain and trigger anxiety, said Anna Kress, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist.
To put this into practice, spend a few seconds at a time truly savoring a good experience when it happens. It doesn’t have to be something monumental; it can be the softness of your pillow after a long day, the warmth of a shower or the flavor of your favorite cocktail. Each time you do this, you train your brain to experience positive emotions more easily.
Talk to someone
If you struggle with worry or pessimism and find it difficult to expect good outcomes (or are immediately suspicious of them), therapy can be helpful, Kress said. A therapist can not only help you get to the core of why experiencing joy is such a grind for you but teach you strategies that increase your tolerance for all emotions.