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Why Comparisons Cause Anxiety and What to Do About It

March 9, 2019 George Abitante

Anxiety follows comparisons to others, so we should find ways to stop those harmful comparisons. Learn how at HealthyPlace.

Comparisons cause anxiety. For much of human history, being sensitive to the people in your surroundings was crucial for survival. If someone looked afraid, it often meant that a predator was near and that you needed to start running immediately. Today, those mechanisms are largely intact, but the types of threats we face are often from other people in social contexts. Although we don't use other people to check for physical threats as often, we now compare ourselves to others to check on whether we're safe and our lives are going well.

Social media has, in many ways, exacerbated the phenomenon of comparisons causing anxiety. We are each presented with the best elements of each others' lives as our only reference point, whereas we see every detail of challenge and unhappiness in our own lives, not just the best moments ("Mindful Social Media Habits Protect Your Self-Esteem"). This makes it exceptionally easy to look at what other people have that we lack rather than looking at what we have, and this habit can have significant consequences. Focusing on what we're missing can increase our stress, make us less satisfied with our lives, and contribute to negative thinking. 

It can be challenging to break out of this habit of comparisons, but below I share a few tips I've found useful for reducing harmful comparisons. 

How to Reduce Comparisons and Anxiety 

  1. Notice comparisons. The first step towards making a change in negative behavior is to notice when it occurs. What happens before you make negative self-comparisons? Where are you? What functions do they serve? Identifying the antecedents to negative self-comparisons will help you understand why they occur and how to change them.
  2. Replace comparisons. After identifying the causes of your comparisons, you can begin to develop alternative behaviors. If, for example, you make comparisons with people who seem to have a lot of friends, this might mean you want to experience more meaningful relationships. If that's the case, use the trigger for your self-comparisons about friends as a signal to reach out to a friend, or someone you want to become a friend, rather than as an opportunity for comparisons. Initiating a novel behavior rather than challenging a default behavior can be easier and produce better results. 
  3. Forget comparisons. Making negative comparisons between ourselves and others often leads us to think about the things we want/are missing on repeat, leaving us stuck in a negative pattern of thinking long after the initial comparison was made. It is crucial to break out of this habit and remind ourselves to move on. We don't need to keep thinking about these things, and in fact, ruminating on them can be harmful. 

It can be exhausting to compare yourself to others, and ultimately can exacerbate anxiety and negative thinking. Use your comparisons as an opportunity to learn about yourself, but move on from them quickly.

How else do you move past comparisons and reduce anxiety? Comment below.

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, March 9). Why Comparisons Cause Anxiety and What to Do About It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, December 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/3/why-comparisons-cause-anxiety-and-what-to-do-about-it



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lizanne Corbit
March, 11 2019 at 1:57 pm

This is a key point for all people spending any time on social media to remember: "We are each presented with the best elements of each others' lives as our only reference point, whereas we see every detail of challenge and unhappiness in our own lives, not just the best moments." It's a highlight reel, not the whole movie. I love your steps for reducing and removing comparison. We can make huge strides by following and implementing simple behaviors like the ones you shared. Excellent read.

March, 12 2019 at 4:49 pm

Hi Lizanne,
Thanks so much for your comment! You bring up a great point that these strategies are relevant for everyone who uses social media even a little bit, and that we can be implementing these skills in many situations. Hope you are well,
George

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