The Thoughts Behind Anxiety
Have you ever felt anxious about anything? I can answer that question pretty easily, even if I’ve never met you and know nothing about you. Yes, you have experienced anxiety. We all have, because anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences to some degree. Levels of anxiety range from mild to moderate to severe. For some people, feeling a little anxious at times is just a normal part of life—no big deal. But for others, feeling anxious is a very big deal—so big that it takes over their lives and keeps them from enjoying day-to-day activities. How can anxiety get so out of control? It’s all about your thoughts.
The way you think influences who you are and how you feel. Although this may seem obvious, let me break it down to show the importance of this when it comes to anxiety. How you think about something (thoughts) affects how you feel (emotions), which in turn affects how you act (behavior). How you act then affects how you think and feel. Can you see the cycle?
Thinking → Feeling → Behaving → Thinking → Feeling
For example, if I begin to think I am a bad teacher (thought) I will feel discouraged and anxious (feelings), which will cause me to teach with less enthusiasm and passion (behavior); I will then receive poor evaluations, and soon I will really believe I am a bad teacher (thought), and the cycle continues downward.
Just thinking something doesn’t make it true. Thoughts do not equal facts.
Time and time again, therapists have found that when people are feeling highly anxious their thoughts are mostly untrue or distorted in some way. Once you spot these untruths or distortions, the power behind these thoughts is greatly diminished, and you are left with much less anxiety! Imagine what would happen to your anxiety if every time you told yourself a lie—“My plane is going to crash” or “He will turn down my proposal” or “I made a fool of myself”—you decided not to believe it. This is actually pretty easy with a little practice. Often just writing down these thoughts is like shining a big spotlight on the cause of your anxiety. With this new clarity, it is much easier to spot the distortions in your thoughts. Although this is a good first step, reviewing the following common distorted thought patterns will also help in unraveling your anxiety.
What Does Distorted in Distorted Thinking Mean Anyway?
Distorted means inaccurate, irrational, not quite right, false, not completely true, or that there is an error of some sort. When it comes to distorted thinking, all of these definitions work.
Common Distorted Thought Patterns
Adapted from Dr. David Burns book Feeling Good
You automatically assume you know what others are thinking or feeling. Even if you have good reasons to believe you are correct, you are often wrong. “She’s angry with me,” “They think I’m boring,” “He didn’t like my presentation.”
You predict the future in mostly negative ways. “I am going to fail the test tomorrow,” “The audience will be bored with my material,” “I will never get promoted.” Very often this type of fortune telling causes unnecessary worry and anxiety. Last time I checked, no one could predict the future with 100% certainty.
You negatively label yourself through broad generalizations—“I am a nervous wreck, loser, jerk, failure”—but you leave out the crucial specifics and don’t realistically evaluate your current situation—“I am tight due to my nervousness and my voice is quivering, but I am not a nervous wreck.”
Have you ever heard the saying “She sees the world through rose-colored glasses”? Well, a negative filter is just the opposite, more like mud-colored glasses. This means that you tend to view the world in a negative way and you pay for it with heightened anxiety or other uncomfortable emotions. This slanted perspective keeps you focused on the negatives while you ignore the positives. If your filter is really strong, you are convinced that the positives don’t even exist. “I never do anything right,” “My parents never complimented me,” “I feel nervous all the time.”
This distortion mostly defines itself. You make sweeping statements based on one or two events. You oversimplify or take a broad view that is not well supported by the circumstances. “He is always rude to me,” “Traveling is never relaxing,” “All employers expect perfection and are unforgiving.”
You blow things out of proportion or magnify them beyond what is factual. You give too much importance to one thing or situation, and this causes unnecessary emotional distress. “I am the biggest jerk in the world,” “I will die of embarrassment,” “I am having a nervous breakdown.”
This means you tend to think in terms of catastrophes or disasters. “Because I forgot to put out the napkins, the whole party is ruined,” “My career is over since I blanked out during my presentation.” Upsetting events can be difficult to deal with, but they are usually not catastrophic. When you exaggerate the effects, you torture yourself with unnecessary anxiety.
You tell yourself that you should or shouldn’t do things. These statements carry heavy judgment as well as unnecessary shame or guilt. “I shouldn’t be so nervous,” “I shouldn’t have called the boss,” “I should be stronger and more patient.” When I run into these thoughts, I like to ask, “Who says you should or shouldn’t?” Another way to lessen the anxiety of these “should” statements is to think in terms of “would like” or “would prefer.” Such as, “I would prefer not to be so anxious right now, but I am.” By slightly rephrasing these thoughts, you can greatly reduce the negative impact on your mood or anxiety.
All or Nothing or Black and White
You see things all one way or another—either black or white—with no middle ground. “I am unsuccessful” or “I am a bad wife/husband.” The world typically does not work this way. Usually things occur on a range or
continuum. Often things are neither black nor white, but somewhere in the middle.
You make assumptions based on how you feel; you ignore the facts, but are excessively tuned in to your feelings. For instance, “I feel worried, therefore I am unsafe” or “I feel guilty, therefore I did something wrong” or “I feel discouraged, so I must be hopeless.” Although your emotions may be telling you something important, often they are way off base and are not supported by the facts.
By first identifying the thoughts behind your anxiety and then checking to see if any of these thoughts have errors or distortions in them, you can greatly reduce your anxiety. For instance, when I feel anxious, sometimes I think that people will see I am anxious and think that I am weak. This thought causes me sadness, shame, and excessive anxiety. But if I look for distortions or errors in these thoughts, I will see that there are many: fortune telling, mind reading, and labeling, to name just a few. Do I really know that people can see my anxiety or that they will always think badly about me because I appear anxious? I am also labeling myself as weak, but is the mere fact that I feel anxious enough reason to conclude that I am a weak human being or somehow less than someone who isn’t feeling anxious? By finding these distortions, I show myself that my upsetting thoughts are not entirely true, and this realization results in less sadness, shame, and anxiety.
You may be thinking that this method is too simple to make any difference (a perfect example of fortune telling!), but in reality it can be a powerful tool to help you feel better. Spend some time reviewing the list of common distorted thought patterns and see if you can spot any errors in your own thinking. Do any of these patterns sound familiar?
Contact us to schedule an appointment to get a better handle on your anxiety by calling 650-461-9026.