Anxiety can become very distressing. It quits your calm and balance causing you to sink into apprehension. Worries take over. You can’t breathe. In that state, everyday life becomes a challenge.
The symptoms of anxiety generate such discomfort that it is understandable that you focus on those sensations and want them to disappear as soon as possible. Being left at the mercy of intrusive thoughts, having trouble sleeping, feeling paralyzed or even on the verge of death when you have a panic attack is not pleasant at all.
However, while those symptoms can be very distressing, there is often a deeper underlying problem that needs to be addressed. Sometimes the underlying problem is not anxiety, but low self-esteem. In that case, when you improve your image of yourself, you will enhance your ability to manage the ups and downs of life without feeling the pangs of anxiety.
What is the relationship between low self-esteem and anxiety?
In 2019, a group of psychologists from Vietnam and Amsterdam conducted a study with more than 1,000 adolescents and young people. They found that “Those with low self-esteem were twice as likely to develop anxiety symptoms, compared to those with adequate self-esteem.”
It is not the first research to reveal a relationship between low self-esteem and anxiety. In 1993, psychologists from the universities of Arizona and Colorado stated that “Self-esteem serves as a buffer against anxiety.” They found that adequate self-esteem reduces the defensive distortions that are often at the root of anxiety.
A year earlier, these same psychologists had developed an experiment in which they found that increasing self-esteem considerably reduces anxiety in different situations, from the prospect of death to the anticipation of a painful stimulus.
In reality, low self-esteem acts as an “internal” threat. That negative image erodes your well-being, so that you become your own worst enemy. In fact, your emotional brain, whose job it is to alert you to threats, doesn’t distinguish between external dangers and those your mind creates.
It simply detects the maladaptive, catastrophic and pessimistic thoughts generated by low self-esteem and qualifies them as a threat to your psychological balance. Then responds with anxiety, condemning yourself to live in a permanent state of fight-flight. Cortisol skyrockets and your performance plummets. In this way, anxiety ends up reinforcing low self-esteem, making you believe that you are not capable of anything. It paralyzes you.
The 3 signs that reveal that low self-esteem is behind anxiety
1. You think too much about rejection
Rejection hurts. No doubt. No one likes to feel left out or rejected. However, most people process those experiences and move on. In contrast, those with low self-esteem tend to get stuck in experiences of exclusion and disapproval, allowing them to determine their worth and the feelings they experience towards themselves.
So if you’re dwelling on the possibility of others rejecting, excluding, or disapproving your behavior, you may be stuck in an acceptance-seeking loop. Since you are not convinced of your worth, you need a constant flow of external confirmation, so you end up depending on the opinions of others.
That approval seeking will make you care more about the image you project. You will begin to doubt at every step. You will wonder how they will interpret your words and attitudes. You will develop a hypervigilant attitude with your “flaws” and you will worry excessively. As a result, anxiety will skyrocket.
Instead of spending a tremendous amount of energy seeking approval from others, focus on accepting yourself and learning to love yourself. You don’t need anyone to remind you how much you’re worth. Surround yourself with people who love and accept you for who you are, not people you need to “conquer” and impress.
2. You run away from challenges
Challenges are opportunities for growth. Every time we face a new situation, we learn or become stronger. However, people with low self-esteem are often afraid of taking risks and don’t like to get involved in challenging activities. They prefer to stay in their comfort zone.
The problem is that, over time, that comfort zone becomes narrower and the prospect of leaving that space where everything is more or less controlled begins to generate anxiety or even panic. Anxiety can prevent you from taking on new challenges and doing what will help you become more confident in yourself.
It is no coincidence that a study carried out at the University of Durham found that people with low self-esteem and anxiety implement fundamentally avoidant and repressive strategies, which It means that they prefer to run away from problems instead of facing them.
However, if you run away from challenges you will never be able to test yourself and know how far you are capable of reaching. If you allow low self-esteem and anxiety to outline your world by drawing the worst catastrophes, you will remain in a very small space in which you will never be able to develop your full potential.
Instead of getting stuck in your head, come back to the present. Every time you notice that your thoughts are going down the paths of apprehension, come back to the present and generate more realistic ideas. The more you trust yourself, your abilities, and your capacity to manage what happens, the less anxiety you will experience and the better you will be able to deal with problems.
3. You are a perfectionist
Perfectionism, low self-esteem, and anxiety often go hand in hand. The common factor is usually the gap between expectations and reality; that is, the difference between how things are and how you want them to be. People with adequate self-esteem accept themselves and feel good about who they are and what they do, so they don’t have to strive for something impossibly perfect.
Instead, people with low self-esteem often try to “fix” their constant disappointments through the pursuit of perfection. It is difficult for them to feel completely satisfied with their achievements, simply because they experience an inner dissatisfaction with themselves. Although they achieve incredible things, the idea of not having achieved perfection overshadows success, fueling a negative image of themselves.
That need for perfection can make you feel like there’s always a bug or a problem to fix. That feeds overexertion, which triggers anxiety to stratospheric levels. Perfectionism can be exhausting and extremely demoralizing if left unchecked. Remember that perfection is a chimera. It’s more productive to spend all that energy on tasks that make you feel good, instead of chasing impossible ideals.
Finally, if you suffer from anxiety, it is understandable that you try to find different ways to get out of this state, but consider that if these attempts are unsuccessful, they can accentuate the feeling of failure, which will feed low self-esteem and trigger anxiety even more, closing a vicious circle from which it will be increasingly difficult to get out.
In order not to get stuck in that loop, it is best to seek professional help. Anxiety can be managed so that it does not become an impediment in your life, but sometimes it is necessary to have someone to guide you developing the appropriate strategies and avoid relapses.
Benéitez, B. (2022) ¿Qué es el ‘yo’ en Psicología?: Las claves de cómo nos percibimos a nosotros mismos. In: La Vanguardia.
Fernandes, B. et. Al. (2022) The Mediating Effects of Self-Esteem on Anxiety and Emotion Regulation. Psychological Reports; 125(2): 787-803.
Nguyen, D. et. Al. (2019) Low Self-Esteem and Its Association With Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation in Vietnamese Secondary School Students: A Cross-Sectional Study. Front Psychiatry; 10: 698.
Greenberg, J. et. Al. (1993) Effects of Self-Esteem on Vulnerability-Denying Defensive Distortions: Further Evidence of an Anxiety-Buffering Function of Self-Esteem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 29(3): 229-251.
Greenberg, J. et. Al. (1992) Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 63(6): 913–922.