Minds that tend towards anxiety are filled with specific types of thoughts and thought patterns. Learning to spot these anxiety-provoking thoughts is the first step towards challenging them and replacing them. Cognitive behavioral therapists refer to these thoughts as cognitive distortions, or mental mistakes. Checking our own thoughts for phrases and words associated with these distortions helps us be more aware of how we may be inadvertently fueling our own anxiety.
To be more aware of our thoughts, it’s helpful to disengage our stress response. We do this by taking a deep, slow breath followed by a step back. An anxious mind tells the body to take quick shallow breaths; a deep, slow breath is incompatible with this. These relaxed breaths send a message from our body back up to our emotional brain that we can be calm – we are safe. After one or two deep breaths, take a step back. This is to broaden our view, because an anxious mind has a narrow, negative view.
Now we are ready to notice our thoughts, objectively. We want to observe what we are thinking in a nonjudgmental way so that we can understand how our gears are turning, so to speak. We are looking for what I call “red-flag” phrases and words that indicate thoughts that unnecessarily sustain or amplify anxiety.
This is the hallmark phrase of an anxious mind. Looking ahead for the sake of preparation and planning makes sense. Looking ahead to predict the worst-case scenario is referred to as catastrophizing and fortune-telling. Notice if you have these types of thoughts and if they occur while you’re feeling anxious.
There are several cognitive strategies you can use to deal with this. Ask yourself the following questions:
Can I tell the future?
If you think you can, your brain is filtering (another cognitive distortion) out all the times you tried to and were wrong. If you were wrong once, your future-telling abilities are unreliable.
Is it helpful to dwell on the worst-case scenario?
If you think it is, that’s the anxiety saying you have to stay focused on it in order to be prepared. But your rational mind knows that dwelling on it just creates more stress.
How likely is this outcome?
Anxious thoughts mix up possibility with probability. An outcome that is highly unlikely may be mistakenly viewed as inevitable.
What are some other possible outcomes?
Notice that there is a broad range of positive and neutral outcomes as well, some of which may be more likely to actually happen.
This phrase is often linked to fear of negative judgment from others. People who tend towards social anxiety usually have false beliefs that others are having critical thoughts about them. The cognitive distortion here is mind-reading. If it’s phrased as “will think”, then it’s fortune-telling ‘and’ mind-reading. These thoughts are often linked to other strong emotions including embarrassment, shame, anger, and worthlessness.
When I was running a group for people with anxiety, this topic often came up. I asked everyone – about 12 people, to raise their hand if they thought they were being judged. Every single person raised their hand! I then asked them who was judging everyone else. Eleven people were shocked and said they were too busy worrying about what everyone else was thinking. One woman raised her hand and admitted she was judging others. That gave us an opportunity to work further on this.
If you notice your thoughts being about fears of others’ judgments, here are some questions to ask yourself:
Is mind-reading possible?
The answer to this is of course, no. If you think you’ve been correct every time, and you know you are right, that’s anxiety talking, not your higher, rational brain.
Am I personalizing this person’s behavior?
People who tend towards anxiety personalize behaviors of others. Anxiety says that another person’s stern look is about us. Facial expressions and behaviors are always about what that person is focused on, and we have no idea what that is.
Have I had negative thoughts about people I care about?
Yes, we all have. This is evidence that negative thoughts alone do not necessarily define a relationship, and that we can survive another person having a negative thought about us.
If someone is having a critical thought about me, can I tolerate that?
Anxiety tells us that we can’t. This may stem from a past time when someone was harshly critical or bullying, and it caused a problem for you. Their behavior was hurtful; their thoughts were harmless. An anxious mind tends to be super sensitive to criticism. However if the criticism itself was actually dangerous, no one would be able to cope with it.
“…is making me nervous.”
Our distress increases when we unintentionally give our power to external events or others. We brainwash ourselves with our thoughts. If we are telling ourselves that a situation or person is making us nervous, our brain and body will respond as if this is true. If these are thoughts you have, ask yourself the following questions.
Can others literally make me feel something?
You may be surprised to learn that the answer is no. Thank goodness we don’t have this kind of power! Our perceptions of things can cause an involuntary gut reaction, but after that, it is solely our thoughts that determine our feelings. The evidence for this is all around you. Notice how many various responses there are to the same event. If the event caused the response, we would all respond the same.
Is it possible to feel differently about this?
The answer to this question is always yes. Anxiety tells us we could “never” feel differently – that’s part of the narrow view. It may not be quick and easy, but we can develop healthier ways of looking at things.
Can I do what I want to do despite feeling nervous?
Anxiety says, “don’t do it!” Avoidance is a hallmark behavior of anxiety – it keeps self-perpetuating that way. What we resist, persists. When we start to change our relationship with anxiety, to work with it instead of against it, we notice that we can tolerate it and continue moving forward with our plans. When we do this, we actually help anxiety calm.
I’m an anxious person. I’m nervous.
This is labeling or putting yourself in a box. Ask yourself:
Have I ever felt calm or more comfortable than I do now?
If the answer is yes, then you are a person who tends towards anxiety, or experiences nervousness sometimes. Labeling yourself or others, limits your view. You are literally defining yourself by one state or emotion that you may frequently experience. Your brain starts to falsely believe that it’s not possible to feel calm or comfortable.
There are many words we commonly use that further distort our perceptions. Here are some of the most common ones:
As in, “I never get anything right, I’ll never get that job, they never call me.” This is often a false absolute. Typically, more accurate words might be rarely, infrequently, or may not. This leaves the door open for hope.
As in, “I always mess up, I always get this wrong, they’re always yelling at me.” This is another absolute that can filter out anything positive.
As in, “I’m too unprepared, I’m too sloppy, we’re too late.” But, according to who or what? Too is often an arbitrary judgment that is stated as if it’s a fact.
As in, “I’m not good enough, my hair isn’t long enough, we’re not prepared enough.” This is often just another judgment which our anxiety makes seem like a fact.
As in, “It’s either perfect or it’s a mess, I’ll get this or I’ll be heartbroken, we’ll nail it or it will be a disaster.” This is a sign of black-and-white, or rigid thinking, which often occurs with perfectionistic anxiety. The truth is usually someplace in the gray area.
There are many other red-flag words including should, can’t, need, and must. Notice if your thoughts contain these words and if they are linked to your anxiety or if they are being used rationally.
WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
Once we identify thoughts that are aligned with anxiety, we can start to change the power we give them. Anxious thoughts that have been repeated over and over, become well-travelled patterns, feel natural, and may feel factual. If we continue to think this way, the anxiety will continue.
Changing our thought patterns is possible, but unlikely unless we approach it carefully. The goal is not necessarily to think positively, but to think rationally, to develop a healthy, more objective perspective. Directly challenging the anxious thoughts can be very difficult because they will directly challenge us back, supported by thoughts like, I can’t do this, or, this will never work. It makes more sense to strengthen neural pathways that make objective thoughts more prominent. The more we repeat healthier thoughts, the stronger they become. Here are some examples of healthier thoughts that can help loosen the grip of anxious thoughts:
- The future is unknown. Things may work out OK.
- I have no idea what other people are thinking. Thoughts are private.
- I would like approval from others, however I do not need it.
- Everyone sees things differently – not necessarily right or wrong, just different.
- I may be feeling nervous, but I can take some deep breaths and still try to do what I planned.
- We all make mistakes sometimes. I’d like to learn from this.
- I am imperfect, just as every other person is.
- I have tended towards anxiety in the past however I’d like to move towards feeling calmer.
It’s helpful for us to customize our own rational self-talk that is believable and that resonates with us. It’s essential to be aware that it feels weird to practice thoughts, and that the only reason for this is that we haven’t thought them repeatedly. They are new pathways. Our rational mind knows that these are healthier thoughts, and that repetition will strengthen them, making them feel more natural.
Neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that rewiring our brains requires proactive, frequent practice. You can do this throughout your day and pair the thoughts with deep, slow breaths. Do it because your rational mind knows this makes sense and that allowing focus to remain on distorted anxious thoughts, is unhealthy and counterproductive. Ask yourself, “What have I got to lose?”