How Self-Sabotage Saves You From Anxiety

Does self-sabotage really save you from anxiety? Yes

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a quick fix that could save you from anxiety? A simple solution that could relieve all your worries and allow you to relinquish all your fears. Well, as the title of this article alludes to, there is such a thing. It’s called self-sabotage.

When it comes to anxiety, nothing saves us quicker than sabotaging ourselves. Undermining our performances and lives keeps us from having to be faced with further situations that induce an anxious state.

But, as with most quick fixes, this one comes with a major caveat. When we begin to sabotage ourselves, yes, we avoid anxiety, but we also eliminate our chances of success.

My Relationship with Self-Sabotage

I have a long-standing relationship with self-sabotaging behavior. This stems from the major role anxiety has played in my life. Early on, mostly at a subconscious level, I learned that sabotaging myself was an easy way to be free of anxiety, at least for the moment.

That’s another downside to self-sabotage. Not only do we lower our odds of success, but the relief is brief. We are not getting to the underlying causes of our anxiety, so the feelings keep popping back up.

However, at the time it didn’t matter. I think anyone who lives with anxiety knows a short lasted reprieve is better than nothing. So, I naturally allowed sabotaging behavior to enter my life. One of the cruelest things about sabotaging ourselves is that it doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, we partake in this form of behavior only to undermine our chances of success and yet still feel no relief from anxiety. But the hope is still there, so we continue to try.

Talking about self-sabotage and our own anxiety can be very intimidating. I know that opening up about these shortcomings of mine leaves me feeling incredibly vulnerable. But I do think it’s necessary to discuss, especially if someone is dealing with a similar situation.

So, I would like to describe two different situations in which self-sabotage saved me, or at least tried to save me, from my anxiety.

No More Presentations

During my sophomore year in college, I had to take a marketing class. It definitely would not have been my first choice, but it was required for my major. The material was interesting, but what got me were the frequent presentations we were required to give.

Let’s just say public speaking was not my favorite. Okay, that may be downplaying it a bit. The truth is, I was terrified of speaking in front of people. The mere thought of it caused my stomach to churn and left me with a feeling like I needed to run away.

Knowing the likelihood of having to speak, I entered that classroom each day already in a state of anxiety. Most of the time I couldn’t even pay attention to what was being discussed due to the level of worry going on in my head.

I couldn’t control whether I was randomly called on in class to speak. What I did have power over, however, was when I knew my group would be presenting. I am not proud of how I handled this. But it does show a great example of self-sabotage saving me from anxiety.

My group included myself and two other girls. So, if I skipped the day we were presenting, the other two could still present. That is exactly what I did on multiple occasions. I sabotaged my own success in the class by avoiding going on the days I knew I had to speak.

As I’ve said, this type of avoidance only allows for a brief reprieve from anxiety. Not to mention the discontent I felt within myself for being so cowardly. It is not a behavior I partake in any longer and definitely not one I encourage.

This example just goes to show how sabotaging ourselves can produce a short-lived freedom from anxiety, as long as you can live with the consequences.

A Desire for Being Benched

Any athlete will tell you, it’s a major accomplishment to become an everyday starter. There is pride in knowing the coach believes you are the best option for your spot in order to put the team in the best position to succeed.

I was lucky enough to find myself in such a position as a freshman in college. Looking back, the achievement was completely taken for granted on my part. I failed to feel gratitude and pride for accomplishing a goal I had set for myself in high school.

There was always some reason I needed to feel down on myself. Perfectionism was the culprit for the type of thinking I was exhibiting. Being a perfectionist is a remarkable way to sabotage yourself. No matter how well you do, a mistake is bound to be found.

I carried this perfectionism with me throughout the season, leading to an intense fear of failing. If I were to fail, which was constantly in my eyes thanks to perfectionism, a wave of negative thoughts and feelings would come over me. When you have such a deep-rooted fear of failure, anxiety becomes your natural state.

Instead of enjoying the accomplishment of being the everyday starter as a freshman, I approached every practice and game with a feeling of extreme anxiety. That is what led me to have the undermining thought of being benched. If the coach would play the other third baseman, I would be free from this anxiety.

One instance stands out in my mind. Right after making an error in a game, I began to panic. Negativity flooded my mind and all I can remember thinking was, “Why won’t coach bench me? The other third baseman deserves to play more than me.”

Talk about going to extremes to avoid anxiety! I was willing to sit the bench, give up a starting spot I had worked hard for, all to save myself from feeling anxious. The worst part is it didn’t work. I wasn’t benched, the anxiety prevailed, and I still sabotaged my own success.

Effects of Self-Sabotage on Anxiety

The reason self-sabotage is so effective at saving us from anxiety lies in one word, avoidance. When you have anxiety, specifically anxiety related to performance, the number one behavioral response will be to avoid the situation.

This proves to be an easy solution since it requires no uncomfortable work. The other alternative is to actually put forth the effort to build the weak areas within our minds that are allowing the anxiety to take form. But that involves time, not to mention putting ourselves in more anxious situations in order to practice.

So, the best immediate relief comes from avoidance.

To better understand avoidance, let’s examine the three different components of anxiety.

  • Cognition: First we have a cognitive response to a situation. This is usually something we view as being threatening. In the examples above, I perceived speaking in front of the class as threatening, as well as making more errors and failing in baseball. So think of cognition as the thoughts you have when confronted with a situation.
  • Autonomic Arousal: After the initial cognition, your body will respond. This happens as your autonomic nervous system reacts in response to the situation. Autonomic arousal is driven by your cognition and causes all the physical symptoms you feel when anxious.
  • Behavioral Response: Lastly you have the behavioral response. Your mind has reacted to an outside stimulus, autonomic arousal has taken place, and now you must decide on how to respond. There really are only two options at this point. Either face the anxious situation or try and avoid it.

Understanding this process, it becomes clear why we partake in self-sabotaging behavior. You first have a cognitive response to a situation. You have begun to think about the threatening consequences that may occur.

Next, your autonomic nervous system steps in. You now experience all the dreadful feelings that accompany anxiety. With the threatening situation and the uncomfortable response your body has, you seek a way out.

Here we see a lot of behaviors take place at the subconscious level aimed at avoiding a situation. Some typical behavioral patterns include:

All three of these behaviors, when exhibited in an athlete, are aimed at avoiding anxiety. As an athlete, quitting your sport is not usually going to be an option. So, what other alternatives do you have?

Well, as I showed in my example, being benched is really the best avoidance option out there. All three of the behavioral patterns, perfectionism, procrastination, and performing poorly can result in such an outcome if done for a while. But is that really what you want to do?

While self-sabotage may seem like the best option to save us from anxiety, it’s really not. In fact, by exhibiting this type of behavior, we end up causing ourselves further frustrations. That is why you must find a healthy alternative to self-sabotage when faced with consistent anxiety.

A Healthy Alternative

We have established that self-sabotage happens in response to us seeking avoidance when faced with anxiety. No one wants to live in a state of discomfort; therefore, our aim becomes to avoid feeling any further anxiety. The best way to accomplish such a task is figuring out how to avoid the situation that causes anxiety.

But the truth is, we can’t live our lives in an avoidance mindset. At least not if we have the desire to achieve any kind of success. It’s impossible to avoid anxiety and as I learned, avoiding these situations only postpone anxiety and causes worse feelings about ourselves.

That is why we must learn how to handle anxiety in a healthy manner. This means no longer looking to self-sabotage as our savior. It’s not easy, but it is the only way to actually get what we want, freedom from anxiety and a successful life.

So, how exactly can we go about handling anxiety in a healthy way? Well, it boils down to simply facing the anxious situation with courage. Now, I know that’s not what any of us want to hear, but sometimes a simple solution is the best one.

The more you continue to avoid an anxiety-inducing situation, the more fearful and anxious you will become. Your mind will make the situation appear worse and worse the more it’s avoided. That leaves only one option, face that which you fear.

Funny enough, the perception we hold towards an event is usually much worse than the situation itself. I’ve found this to be true countless times. Once I finally mustered up the courage to face an anxious situation, I realized how harmless it actually was. In fact, I usually felt better as a result.

But I know how hard it can be to get yourself to that point. That is why there are some helpful tips I would like to provide you that will aid you in your quest to confront anxiety.


My thinking used to be that I had to fight to get rid of my anxiety before I could move forward. What this led to was a constant focus being given to the anxious feelings. Instead of working to rid myself of the anxiety, the attention made it grow worse.

Rather than obsessing over the feelings, I needed to accept their presence. Acceptance is a very powerful tool. It forces us to quit trying to resist and start working to overcome. Shifting our perspective in this way puts us in an incredible position to move forward.

So, stop trying to resist your anxiety. Accept that it is currently a part of you and shift your focus off the feelings it creates. Begin to see yourself the way you would like to be, instead of attaching your self-image to anxiety.


To begin seeing yourself the way you want to be, an image must be created. This ties into acceptance. Rather than focusing on not feeling anxious, begin to give your attention to feeling the way you would like.

After you define this optimal image of yourself, it’s time to train the memory of it in your mind. Visualization is a wonderful practice to accomplish this. In the beginning, it will be difficult for you to go into an anxious situation and feel the way you’d like. That is why seeing it in your mind is the best option.

Visualization provides a safe place to repeatedly see yourself in a confident and self-assured state. The more you practice, the more your self-image will become aligned with that vision, rather than anxiety.

Another way visualization is beneficial when it comes to anxiety is by helping you relax. When you do begin to courageously face your anxiety, having a tool that relaxes you is much needed. Create a scene in your mind that makes you feel completely relaxed.

Maybe it’s walking on the beach, hanging out with family, or spending time with pets. Whatever it is, start visualizing yourself in that situation, feeling completely at peace. Then, whenever you feel anxious, you can imagine that scene and feel all the positive emotions come flooding into you.


There are two sides to your breath when it comes to anxiety. On one hand, it can be used to further worsen the symptoms you are experiencing. This happens when your breathing becomes shallow.

If you’ve ever given attention to your breath when feeling anxious you will have noticed the short, rapid breaths you were taking.

On the other hand, your breath can be used to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety.

If quick, shallow breath worsens anxiety, then slow, deep breaths will have the opposite effect. Begin to focus on breathing deeply and rhythmically. I love to focus on count breathing, where you breathe in and out for a certain count.

This provides your brain with more oxygen, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes calmness. Breathing also has a powerful effect on your attention. The worst thing you can do when feeling anxious is to focus on the anxiety. By becoming aware of your breath, you provide your mind with a point of focus. This places you in a mindful state, which reduces the impact of anxiety.

Final Thoughts

Self-Sabotage can seem like a saving grace when you live with constant anxiety. The quickest form of relief you can achieve is avoidance. By avoiding the situation that is stimulating your anxiety, you can expect some immediate freedom.

Sabotaging yourself helps to achieve such avoidance. However, it will only be a brief reprieve followed by feelings of shame and regret. Self-sabotage, no matter how it may seem, is not a healthy way to manage your anxiety.

Instead, you have to learn to face your anxiety. By going head-to-head with the situations that create such feelings you can eliminate their impact on your life. This is tremendously hard and takes a lot of courage.

But it is a path you must take if you wish to overcome anxiety. There are tools you can use to help alleviate the symptoms and make this process a little easier. Accept your anxiety, visualize how you wish to feel, and focus on deep rhythmic breathing.

Following these steps will help on your journey to overcoming anxiety.

Do you look to self-sabotage as a way to save yourself from anxiety?

I hope that this article was helpful, and if you enjoyed it please share so that others may also learn a healthy way to handle their anxiety.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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