One of the driving forces behind feeling anxious are the anxious thinking patterns that we engage in. We are going to examine three thought habits commonly seen in people who are struggling with anxiety.
First, let’s look at this example anxiety-provoking thought together.
“Everyone is judging me.”
On its own, outside of context, this statement is simply a series of letters with punctuation. In and of itself, its harmless and essentially meaningless. Now let’s imagine this thought comes to mind when you are in a social setting where you are feeling nervous. At this point, that sentence takes on a whole new meaning. Same statement, same string of letters and punctuation and yet in a different context the additional thoughts and feelings that follow it can be really uncomfortable.
So, what’s the difference?
The difference is your interpretation of the thought or the meaning you ascribe to it. When reading it as a statement that does not apply to you its harmless. When thinking it while you are already feeling uncomfortable in a social setting its personal and anxiety provoking.
Here’s the thing about our anxious thoughts, they feel so true and real! They feel like they deserve your attention and energy and that if you don’t pay attention to them something terrible will happen. This is why it can be really difficult to break free from anxious thinking patterns.
With every client I work with, I teach them about cognitive distortions, a fancy way of saying thoughts that are not accurate. According to Dr. David Burns, there are 10 cognitive distortions that are commonly to blame for our increased feelings of anxiety and depression. There are three that tend to be on the top of the list for individuals who are struggling with anxiety.
Common Anxious Thinking Patterns
1- All or Nothing Thinking- This is where you look at things in absolutes. Something is all good or its all bad. We see this in the example statement, “Everyone is judging me.” because of the word everyone. Other words like never, always, all the time, everyone, etc. are also indicators that all or nothing thinking is occurring.
2- Fortune Telling and Mind Reading- This is where you arbitrarily predict things are going to turn out badly or assume people are thinking negatively when you have no evidence for this. Again, we see this in the example thought above.
3- Overgeneralization- This is where you believe that one negative event is a never ending pattern of defeat. While we don’t directly see this in the example thought, it is likely to show up in a following thought like “People are always judging me.”
Life is hard. “Bad things” happen. It is absolutely normal and expected that you will have some negative thoughts and feelings. However, when we employ these kinds of distortions, we unnecessarily add to our own suffering.
How do I get rid of anxious thinking patterns?
There are a variety of different methods, theories and approaches one can use to get rid of these unhelpful thought patterns. I’m typically using cognitive-behavioral interventions such as mindfulness, reframing, and acceptance. I’ll give you an example of each.
Mindfulness involves taking an observing and curious approach to your thoughts instead of engaging with them and judging them or yourself for having them. Simply adding the words “I notice I’m having the thought” to the front of the unhelpful thought can create some distance between you and the impact of the thought so that you can step into the observer role. “I notice I’m having the thought that everyone is judging me.” Do you see or feel that difference?
Reframing involves identifying your negative thought, labeling the distortions in the thought, and then replacing the thought with a true and distortion free alternative. We’ve already identified some of the distortions (all or nothing thinking and mind reading) in the thought “Everyone is judging me.” A true and distortion free alternative could be “Some people might be judging me and that’s to be expected in social settings” or “There are people who are judgmental and that says more about them than it does about me.”
Acceptance is an approach that feels less intuitive. Typically when we have negative thoughts we want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Anyone who has ever tried this knows that working to get rid of the thought actually strengthens the thought and keeps us fixated on it. So, one way to practice acceptance is to very simply allow the anxious thought to be present and don’t try and get rid of it. It is completely unrealistic to think that you can control the thousands of thoughts that run through your brain on any given day.
When working on changing your thoughts, or trying to adjust the impact that your thoughts have on you, I recommend to start with becoming aware of your thoughts. What are you telling yourself on a day-to-day basis? Once you have some awareness, begin to look for these distortions. You’ll be surprised to see how often you use them. Then try some of the techniques mentioned above to see if you find some relief. Check out the resource page for additional resources on these topics.